BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Imad Mughniyeh, one of America’s most wanted fugitives implicated in a series of infamous attacks against U.S., Israeli and Jewish targets in Lebanon and abroad, has been killed by Israeli agents, Hezbollah announced in a statement Wednesday. An Iranian television station said he was killed in a car bomb in Syria.
The car bombing Tuesday night in Damascus marks the second attack in Syria in less than six months, following Israeli warplanes destroying a suspected nuclear site in September deep in the Syrian desert.
The assassination dealt a blow to Hezbollah, which fought the Israelis in the summer 2006 war in Lebanon, and its Iranian and Syrian backers. Hezbollah’s television referred to him as “one of the makers of liberation and the glorious victory in the July war.”
Israel’s government declined comment on the assassination. Syria has not said anything either, nor did Hezbollah explicitly link his death to the Damascus bombing, which would be an embarrassment for the government of President Bashar Assad for hosting him.
Mughniyeh, who has been in hiding for years, was among the fugitives indicted in the United States for the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner in which a U.S. Navy diver was killed. He was also suspected of masterminding attacks that killed more than 200 Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s when he was then the Iranian-backed Hezbollah’s security chief.
Mughniyeh is on an FBI wanted list with a US$25 million (¤17 million) bounty on his head. The bounty is equal to that the U.S. has put for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Mughniyeh is also believed by Israel to have been involved in planning the 1992 bombing of Israel’s embassy in Argentina in which 29 people were killed and the blast at a Buenos Aires Jewish center two years later that killed 95. “With all pride we declare a great Jihadist leader of the Islamic resistance in Lebanon joining the martyrs … The brother commander hajj Imad Mughniyeh became a martyr at the hands of the Zionist Israelis,” said a statement carried on Hezbollah’s television.
The statement did not say how he was killed, but the announcement came a few hours after a late night explosion in Damascus, capital of neighboring Syria, destroyed a vehicle. Witnesses in Damascus said at the time that a passerby was killed as security forces sealed off the area and removed the body, but authorities there would not give details.
Iran’s English-language satellite station Press TV on Wednesday said the person slain in the Damascus explosion turned out to be Mughniyeh. It said an Iranian school and a Syrian intelligence office were in the same area of Kafar Soussa where the explosion occurred.
According to informed sources quoted by the Tehran-based Press TV, Mughniyeh was leaving his house and about to get into his car when it exploded. However, LBC, a Lebanese television station, said Mughniyeh was attending a ceremony at the Iranian school in Damascus and was killed as he left the function.
Iran celebrated the anniversary of the Islamic revolution this week.
Mughniyeh’s assassination, the first major attack against a leader of Hezbollah since the 1992 helicopter strike that killed the Hezbollah secretary-general Sheik Abbas Mussawi in southern Lebanon, was a major blow to the guerrilla group. If Israel proves to be involved in the assassination it would mark a bold move by the Israelis inside Syria and could draw Hezbollah retaliation.
Hezbollah did not threaten immediate revenge. But its al-Manar television, which broke into Quranic verses after the announcement, broadcast another statement from the Shiite Muslim militant group, saying a funeral will be held on Thursday.
It urged supporters to turn out in its stronghold in south Beirut to “carry on our shoulders a leader we were proud with his leadership and a martyr we’re honored by his martyrdom.” “Let us make our voice heard by all the enemies and murderers that we will make victory no matter how the sacrifices are,” Hezbollah said.
The assassination also sends a powerful warning to the Damascus-based leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group which is backed by Iran. In 2004, a Hamas activist survived a similar bombing that destroyed his vehicle on a Damascus street shortly after he and his family stepped out.
Hamas spoke out against Mughniyeh’s assassination. “We condemn this crime and we emphasize the Muslim nation must rise up to confront the Zionist devil which is back by the Americans,” said Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Samir Abu Zuhri.
The announcement of his death said Mughniyeh for 20 years has been the target of “Zionists and oppressors”, in Hezbollah and Iranian parlance a reference to Israel and the United States.
Mughniyeh, believed to be 45, also was suspected of being behind the kidnappings of Westerners, the suicide attacks against the U.S. Embassy and the Marine base in Lebanon in the 1980s, bombings that killed more than 260 Americans.
Mughniyeh was Hezbollah security chief during that turbulent period in Lebanon’s civil war. Little has been known about him since the end of the 15-year conflict and Hezbollah has regularly refused to talk about him, with Wednesday’s announcement of his assassination the first mention of him in years.
But American intelligence officials have described Mughniyeh as Hezbollah’s operations chief and was believed to have moved between Lebanon, Syria and Iran in disguise.
Mughniyeh’s last public appearance was believed to be at the funeral of his brother Fuad, who was killed on Dec. 12, 1994, when a booby-trapped car blew up in the southern suburb of Beirut.
In 2006, Mughniyeh was reported to have met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Syria. Tehran and the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards have never publicly disclosed the extent of their links with their protege Hezbollah.