BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) Imad Mughniyeh, the militant accused of attacks that left hundreds of Americans and Israelis dead, including a U.S. Navy diver during the infamous 1985 hijacking of a TWA jetliner, has been killed, Hezbollah said today.
The militant group blamed Israel for the assassination a charge the Jewish state denied but it did not say how he died. However, Middle East media reported he was killed in a recent car bomb in Syria.
His killing is a major blow to Hezbollah, which fought Israel in the summer 2006 war in Lebanon, and its Iranian and Syrian backers.
Mughniyeh, who had 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 on the U.S. Embassy and the Marine base in Lebanon that killed more than 260 Americans in the 1980s when he was then the Iranian-backed Hezbollah’s security chief.
Mughniyeh, 45, was also the reputed leader of a group that held Westerners hostage in Lebanon, among them journalist Terry Anderson, a former Associated Press chief Middle East correspondent who was held captive for six years.
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.
Mughniyeh is on an FBI wanted list with a $25 million bounty on his head. The bounty is equal to that the U.S. has put for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
“With all pride we declare a great jihadist leader of the Islamic resistance in Lebanon joining the martyrs … The brother commander hajj Imad Mughinyeh became a martyr at the hands of the Zionist Israelis,” said a statement carried on Hezbollah television.
The announcement came a few hours after a late night explosion in Damascus destroyed a vehicle. Witnesses in the Syrian capital 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 today 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.
Press TV reported that 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 its Islamic revolution this week.
Israel denied killing the militant.
“Israel rejects the attempt by terror groups to attribute to it any involvement in this incident. We have nothing further to add,” read the statement from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office.
Syria has not commented, nor did Hezbollah explicitly link his death to the Damascus bombing, which would be an embarrassment for the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad for hosting him.
Mughinyeh’s killing is 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.
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 condemned the 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 was Hezbollah security chief during a 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.
Today’s announcement of his death was the first mention of him in years.
But American intelligence officials have described Mughniyeh as Hezbollah’s operations chief, who 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 hardline 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.