Top Hezbollah figure wanted by U.S. is killed

Posted in Terrorism | 13-Feb-08 | Source: International Herald Tribune

Imad Mughniyeh

BEIRUT, Lebanon: Fugitive militant Imad Mughniyeh, a top U.S. target suspected in the killings of hundreds of Americans as well as a series of infamous strikes against U.S., Israeli and Jewish targets, was killed in a car bomb blast in the Syrian capital Damascus, Iranian television and a Syrian human rights group said Wednesday. Hezbollah accused Israel for the assassination.

The shadowy Mughniyeh, a top figure in the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Shiite Hezbollah militant group, was one of the most notorious terror figures of the 1980s and 1990s but had virtually vanished for the past 15 years.

He was implicated in 1983 bombings of the U.S Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut that killed more than 300 people, the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight in which an American Navy diver was killed and the kidnappings of numerous Americans in Lebanon, including then-AP Mideast bureau chief Terry Anderson. Mughniyeh is on an FBI wanted list with a US$25 million (?17 million) bounty on his head, equal to that of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Israel on Wednesday denied involvement in his slaying. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said in a statement that it was looking into reports of Mughniyeh's death and that Israel "rejects the attempt by terror groups to attribute to it any involvement in this incident."

But the blast, the first major attack against a leader of Hezbollah since a 1992 helicopter strike that killed Hezbollah secretary-general Sheik Abbas Mussawi in southern Lebanon, could dramatically heighten tensions between Israel and the Shiite militant group, as well as its Iranian and Syrian backers. Israel and Hezbollah fought a bloody war in summer 2006 that devastated south Lebanon.

A prominent Shiite Muslim cleric close to Hezbollah called for the group's military wing to retaliate.

"Every attack against the resistance (Hezbollah) will be met by with a response from the resistance," the head of south Lebanon's religious scholars, Sheik Afif al-Naboulsi, said on militant group's Al-Manar TV. "An eye for an eye ... a person for a person and a leader for a leader."

Hezbollah, whose top leader Hassan Nasrallah has been largely in hiding since the 2006 war fearing Israeli assassination, did not immediately threaten revenge. In a statement, the group said Mughniyeh "became a martyr at the hands of the Zionist Israelis," referring to him as one of the founders of the group and as "one of the makers of liberation and the glorious victory in the July (2006) war."

Al-Manar on Wednedsay aired a rare picture of Mughniyeh ? showing a burly, bespectacled man with a black beard wearing a military camouflage and a military cap. It did not say when the picture was taken. Mughniyeh has been reported by the media and intelligence agencies to have undergone plastic surgery to avoid detection as he moved around in the 1990s.

The slaying could also prove an embarassment for Syria, revealing that Mughniyeh was present in the country. There was no immediate confirmation from Syria, which is host to a number of radical Palestinian leaders and faces accusations from Washington that it supports terrorism. In September, Israeli warplanes struck a site in the deserts of eastern Syria believed by some to be a nascent nuclear facility or a military base.

The blast took place late Tuesday in the Kafar Soussa residential district of the Syrian capital. 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 as the explosion occurred. The station said Mughniyeh was leaving his house and about to get into his car when it exploded.

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.

A Syrian human rights group that has highlighted arrests of pro-democracy campaigners by the government of President Bashar Assad confirmed the assassination of Mughniyeh by car bomb in Damascus late Tuesday.

"The assassination of Mughniyeh in Kafar Soussa neighborhood in Damascus came in the aftermath of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's threats to assassinate Hezbollah and Hamas' leaders wherever they are," said the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria (NOHR) in a statement Wednesday.

The assassination 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.

It also could further stir up turmoil in deeply divided Lebanon, where Hezbollah is locked in a bitter power struggle with the Western-backed government. Hezbollah called for a massive gathering of its supporters for Mughniyeh's funeral in southern Beirut on Thursday.

Government supporters are planning a rally of hundreds of thousands the same day in downtown Beirut to mark the third anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, raising the possibility of tensions between the two sides.

Mughniyeh, believed to be 45, served as Hezbollah's security chief during the turbulent years of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. He was indicted in the United States for the 1985 TWA hijacking in which Shiite militants seized the 747 and flew it back and forth between Beirut and Algiers demanding the release of Lebanese Shiites captured by Israel. During the hijacking, the body of Navy diver Robert Stethem, a passenger on the plane, was dumped on the tarmac of Beirut airport.

He has also been accused of masterminding the April 1983 car bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut that killed 63 people, including 17 Americans, and the simultaneous truck bombings of the U.S. Marine barracks and French military base in Beirut, killing 58 French soldiers and 241 Marines.

During the war, Mughniyeh was also believed to have directed a string of kidnappings of Americans and other foreigners, including Anderson ? who was held for six years until his release in 1991 ? and CIA station chief William Buckley, who was killed in 1985.

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.

But little has been known about Mughniyeh since the end of the 15-year civil war. American intelligence officials have said Mughniyeh continued to be Hezbollah's operations chief and was believed to have moved between Lebanon, Syria and Iran in disguise.

Hezbollah has regularly refused to talk about him, trying to distance itself from the controversial figure. Wednesday's announcement of his assassination the group's first mention of him in years ? and its mention of a role in the 2006 war was the first time it has suggested he was still active in the organization.

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.