Mughniyeh, 45, was the suspected mastermind of attacks on the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Marine barracks that killed hundreds of Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s, as well as the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires which killed 29 people.
Syria’s official news agency SANA said he was killed a car bombing in Damascus on Tuesday night, news agencies reported.
“The ongoing investigation over the car bomb in the residential Kfar Sousse neighborhood last night has proven that it targeted Lebanese combatant Imad Mughniyeh,” SANA quoted Syrian Interior Minister Brig. Gen. Bassam Abdul-Majid as saying.
On Wednesday, Hezbollah blamed Israel for Mughniyeh’s death, reported Agence France-Presse.
“He has been a target of the Zionists for 20 years,” a statement released by Hezbollah said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert released a statement saying, “Israel rejects the attempts of terror elements to attribute to Israel any involvement in this incident.”
The death was welcomed by many, including Israeli lawmaker Danny Yatom, who called the killing “a big achievement for the free world against terrorist organizations,” reported the BBC.
The U.S. government also applauded the killing.
“The world is a better place without this man in it. He was a cold-blooded killer, a mass murderer and a terrorist responsible for countless innocent lives lost,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. “One way or another he was brought to justice.”
Little has been known about Mughniyeh since the end of the Lebanese civil war and Hezbollah has consistently refused to talk about him. The announcement of his death was the first mention of him in years.
American intelligence officials have described Mughniyeh as Hezbollah’s operations chief who was believed to have moved between Lebanon, Syria and Iran in disguise. He also might have undergone several rounds of plastic surgery to evade capture.
In 2006, Mughniyeh was reported to have met with hardline Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Syria, the AP reported.
Witnesses told the New York Times that the car bomb exploded just after 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday in Tantheem Kafer Souseh, an upscale neighborhood of Damascus. The vehicle, believed to be a black sport utility vehicle, was “like a shredded metal can” after the blast, according to Housham Nasaiseh, 19, who works nearby and arrived at the scene a few minutes after the blast.
After the death became public, mourners gathered in Moujamaa al-Shouhada, a Hezbollah center in the suburbs of Beirut, and black flags were raised in the southern Lebanon town where Mughniyeh was born. A mass funeral was scheduled for Thursday in the Beirut suburbs.
In 1985, he was identified as one of the hijackers of a TWA flight bound for Rome. A U.S. Navy diver was killed as a result. Mughniyeh reportedly left a fingerprint on the plane, one of the few careless moves he made in 25 years of militant activity.
Mughniyeh was also believed to have directed a group that held Westerners hostage in Lebanon. Among them was journalist Terry Anderson, a former AP chief Middle East correspondent who was held captive for six years.
“I can’t say I’m either surprised or sad,” Andersen told the AP. “He was not a good man – certainly the primary actor in my kidnapping and many others,” he added. “To hear that his career has finally ended is a good thing and it’s appropriate that he goes up in a car bomb.”
Robert Baer, who hunted Mughniyeh for years as a CIA officer told 60 Minutes in 2002 that he was “the most dangerous terrorist we’ve ever faced.”
“He enters by one door, exits by another, changes his cars daily, never makes appointments on a telephone, never is predictable. He only uses people that are related to him that he can trust. He doesn’t just recruit people. He is the master terrorist, the grail that we have been after since 1983.”
The U.S. once had a $25 million bounty on his head.
Israeli defense officials ordered institutions abroad be more alert in case Hezbollah try to retaliate for the killing. One senior intelligence officer told The Jerusalem Post that Hezbollah is believed to have infrastructure in more than 40 countries abroad, particularly in Africa and South America.
“After events like this, we need to sharpen our senses in preparation,” an official told The Post, but added that “security personnel were not being beefed up at this stage.”