Iranian Guards commander killed in Syria

Assailants shot dead an Iranian Revolutionary Guards chief in an ambush on the way from Damascus towards the Lebanese capital, the Iranian authorities said on Thursday.

Iran's elite fighting force named him as commander Hassan Shateri, in a statement on its website that said he was killed on Tuesday.

"Commander Hassan Shateri was martyred en route from Damascus to Beirut at the hands of Zionist regime mercenaries and backers," the force's spokesman, Ramezan Sherif, said in the statement.

Sherif identified Shateri as a Revolutionary Guards commander who was also head of the Iranian Committee for the Reconstruction of Lebanon.

A strong ally of the Damascus regime, Tehran often refers to Syrian rebels fighting troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad as "terrorists" with ties to Israel.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said he "strongly condemned this terrorist act."

Cited by Iranian media, Salehi said he "valued the selfless services of this commander of Islam and his tireless efforts in the reconstruction of the damaged areas in the southern Lebanon."

Last month, US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford criticised Iran's "unhelpful" role in the Syrian conflict.

"They are sending arms, they are sending other kinds of experts, and in fact we know that they are sending Iran Revolutionary Guard" members, said Ford, who who was recalled from Damascus in October 2011 because of security threats.

The commander of the Revolutionary Guards, General Ali Jaafari, said in September that members of the Quds Force, the Guards' elite special operations unit, were in Syria and Lebanon but insisted they were only there to provide "counsel."

Iran's foreign ministry later denied any Revolutionary Guards were present in Syria, saying Jaafari's comments had been published out of context.

Iran's Fars news agency said Shateri was killed on Tuesday, but did not elaborate.

His funeral in Tehran on Thursday was attended by Jaafari, Qassem Soleimani who heads the foreign operations Quds Force unit, and Ali Saidi, representative of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Shateri was shot dead by rebels.

"We do not know exactly where he was shot, but we do know that a rebel group ambushed his vehicle while en route from Damascus to Beirut," the Britain-based Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

The Iranian embassy in Beirut said "armed terrorists" killed its national, adding that he had been involved in reconstruction work in Lebanon. It did not elaborate on the circumstances or location of his death.

It said he was in charge of the Iranian Committee for the Reconstruction of Lebanon, set up after the devastating war in 2006 between Israel and the Shiite Hezbollah militia, which Iran supports.

According to Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, he had been "in Syria, specifically in Aleppo, to study projects to reconstruct the city" in the north.