BEIRUT: Imad Mughniyeh, reputed to be one of Hizbullah's top security officials and high on America's list of wanted "terrorists," was killed by a car bomb in Damascus, the party announced on Wednesday. Syria's interior minister, Brigadier General Bassam Abdul-Majid, confirmed the news in a statement carried by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA). The agency quoted Abdul-Majid as saying that an investigation into the blast was under way.
"The investigation over the car bomb in the residential Kfar Sousse neighborhood last night has established that it targeted Lebanese fighter Imad Mughniyeh," SANA said, quoting Abdul-Majid as condemning the "cowardly and terrorist act."
Tuesday night's attack took place in an up-market district that houses an Iranian school, a police station and a Syrian intelligence office.
Witnesses at the scene in Damascus told Reuters they saw security officers hauling the body away. Scores of police and intelligence officers rushed to the site. A police truck towed away the wrecked car, a late- model Mitsubishi Pajero.
Hizbullah accused Israel of assassinating Mughniyeh, who was reportedly head of the group's security network during the 1975-90 Civil War, by planting a bomb in his car.
Israel denied any involvement in the killing, seen as a major setback for Hizbullah, but officials expressed satisfaction at his death.
Mughniyeh, whose age was estimated 45, had long been on a list of foreigners Israel wanted to kill or apprehend and the United States had offered a $5 million reward for his capture.
Mughniyeh was widely accused of involvement in the 1983 bombings of the US Embassy and US Marine and French paratrooper barracks in Beirut, which killed more than 350 people, as well as the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, the kidnapping of Westerners in Lebanon during the 1980s, and a series of other high-profile operations.
Interpol recently put out an international warrant for him for his alleged role in the Buenos Aires attack
The United States indicted him for his role in planning and participating in the June 14, 1985, hijacking of an American commercial airliner and the killing of US Navy diver who was aboard the flight.
After announcing the assassination, Hizbullah urged its supporters and those of other parties in the opposition March 8 Forces coalition to attend a funeral for Mughniyeh in the southern Beirut suburb of on Thursday afternoon.
The funeral comes on the same day as a mass rally called by the ruling March 14 camp in Downtown Beirut to mark the third anniversary of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination. The timing prompted concerns that conflict could break out between large numbers of opposition and government supporters using the same road to travel to the capital from the Bekaa Valley, as well as from the Chouf Mountains and points south.
"After a life full of jihad, sacrifices and accomplishments ... Hajj Imad Mughniyeh ... died a martyr at the hands of the Israeli Zionists," Hizbullah said. "The martyr had been a target for Zionists for 20 years."
Hizbullah pledged "to continue Mughniyeh's jihadist path until achieving complete victory ."
"He was not only being targeted by Israel, but also by the Americans and many other parties," Danny Yatom, ex-head of Israel's Mossad spy service, told Israel Radio. "He was one of the terrorists with the most amount of intelligence agencies and states chasing him."
Mughniyeh had been a very tough target to track, he added, describing his death as a severe
blow to Hizbullah.
"He behaved with extreme caution for many years. It was impossible even to obtain his picture. He never appeared or spoke to the media," Yatom said. "His identity was hidden. His steps were hidden. He behaved with extreme caution, and that was the reason it was difficult to get to him for so many years."
Despite the favorable impression conveyed by Yatom and current Israeli officials, the Jewish state denied any role in Wednesday's assassination.
"Israel rejects the attempts of terror elements to attribute to Israel any involvement," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said in a curt statement.
Mughniyeh was reputed by some Western intelligence services to have led Islamic Jihad, a pro-Iranian group which emerged in Lebanon in the early 1980s and some of whose members later joined Hizbullah. Islamic Jihad kidnapped several Westerners, including Americans, in Beirut in the mid 1980s. The group killed some of its captives and exchanged others for US weapons to Iran in what was later known as the Iran-Contra scandal. Among those killed was the CIA's station chief.
Mughniyeh's brother was killed in a car bomb in Beirut in 1994. Reports at the time suggested Imad had been the target. - With agencies