BEIRUT, Lebanon -- A senior Hezbollah military commander, one of America's most wanted men for his alleged links to a string of bombings, hijackings and kidnappings in the 1980s and 1990s, has been killed, the Shiite Muslim group said in a statement yesterday. Hezbollah accused Israel of orchestrating the killing.
Security officials in Lebanon said the man, Imad Mugniyah, who was believed to be behind attacks in 1983 on the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut and the terrorist hijacking of a TWA jetliner in 1985, was killed Tuesday night by a car bomb in Damascus, Syria.
"With pride and honor we announce that a great Jihadi leader has joined the procession of martyrs in the Islamic resistance," said a statement read on Hezbollah's Al Manar television station. "The martyr was killed at the hands of the Israeli Zionists."
Israel officially distanced itself from the killing and, without specifically naming Mugniyah, said that it was looking into the attack in Syria.
Mugniyah was charged in the hijacking of the TWA jetliner in which one American died and implicated among other things in shipments of arms from Iran to the Palestinians.
U.S. officials assert that Mugniyah was behind the bombings of the embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. A car bomb at the embassy in April killed 63 people, including 17 Americans, while a truck bomb in October at the Marine compound killed 241 U.S. troops.
The United States also asserts that he was behind the torture and murder of William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut, in 1984; the kidnapping and murder of Marine Lt. Col. William Richard Higgins, who was on peacekeeping duty in Lebanon in 1988; and, through the Islamic Jihad Organization, the seizure of Western hostages in Beirut during the 1980s.
"Israel rejects the attempt by terrorist elements to ascribe to it any involvement whatsoever in this incident," the office of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in a statement.
But some former Israeli security officials did not hide their satisfaction at Mugniyah's assassination. Danny Yatom, a Labor parliamentarian and former chief of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, called Mugniyah's death "a great achievement for the free world in its fight on terror."
Gideon Ezra, a minister from Israel's governing Kadima Party and former deputy chief of the Shin Bet internal intelligence agency, told Israel radio yesterday that many countries had an interest in killing Mugniyah but that "Israel, too, was hurt by him, more than other countries in recent years."
Ezra said, "Of course, I don't know who killed him, but whoever did should be congratulated."
As well as being described as an arch-terrorist with strong links to Iran, Mugniyah was believed in Israel to be a master of disguises who may have undergone several rounds of plastic surgery to evade capture.
His organization may also have played a role in the bombing of the Khobar Towers military residence in Saudi Arabia in 1996, in which 17 Americans were killed.
Hamas, the militant Islamic group that controls Gaza, joined Hezbollah in blaming Israel for Mugniyah's death, calling it a "new example of Zionist gangster-ism."