The Lebanese-based guerilla group Hezbollah said Wednesday that its deputy leader Imad Mughniyah was killed Tuesday evening in a bomb blast in a residential neighborhood of Damascus, and accused Israel of responsibility for the explosion.
“With all pride we declare a great jihadist leader of the Islamic resistance in Lebanon joining the martyrs… The brother commander hajj Imad Mughniyah became a martyr at the hands of the Zionist Israelis,” said a statement carried on Hezbollah’s television station.
The Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem initially declined comment, but later issued a statement denying Israeli involvement.
Mughniyah headed Hezbollah’s operations branch serving in a role similar to chief of staff, and had been wanted by Israel and the United States for years due to his role in numerous bombings, hijackings and abductions in which hundreds of people were killed.
He was wanted for the bombings of the Israeli embassy and the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994, as well as a wave of abductions of Westerns in Lebanon in the 1980s.
Mughniyah lived a highly secretive life, constantly moving between states like Lebanon, Iran, and Syria. In the 1990s, foreign reports claim, Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency tried unsuccessfully to assassinate him in a complex operation in southern Beirut.
However, the operation killed his brother, a car shop owner in Beirut. Mughniyah was expected to be present at the funeral, giving an additional chance to assassinate him, but he never showed.
The cause of the Damascus explosion, which occurred about 10:45 p.m. Tuesday evening in the upscale Kafar Soussa neighborhood, was not immediately known.
Syrian security forces quickly sealed off the area and removed the destroyed car, which had its driver’s seat and the rear seat blown away by the force of the blast. Syria later Wednesday also accused Israel of being behind the blast.
Damascus residents, some in their pajamas, gathered to inspect the damage, careful around shards of glass and debris. Three other cars parked nearby were also damaged, their windows shattered and doors blown out.
“I was awakened by the explosion, rushed to the window and saw the glow,” one witness said. He lost the windows on his 5th floor apartment, which overlooks the bombed-out SUV.
Another witness in a 7th floor apartment rushed to the windows after the blast and said he “saw one [body] covered with a white sheet on the ground.”
Both spoke on condition of anonymity.
The witnesses and Palestinian sources in Syria and Lebanon said the blast was caused by a bomb planted inside the vehicle.