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Mastermind of 1983 Beirut bombings killed in Damascus

Imad Mughniyeh.
Imad Mughniyeh. Hezbollah handout

DAMASCUS, Syria — A car bomb Tuesday night killed the mastermind behind a quarter-century of spectacular terrorist attacks, including the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and the Marine barracks in Lebanon, and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah accused Israel on Wednesday of staging the assassination.

"A great jihadist leader of the Islamic resistance in Lebanon is joining the martyrs," Hezbollah said in a statement.

"The brother Commander hajj Imad Mughniyeh became a martyr at the hands of the Zionist Israelis."

The U.S., which has had Mughniyeh on its most-wanted terrorist list for 25 years, hailed the reports of his death. "The world is a better place without this man in it," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "He was a cold-blooded killer, a mass murderer and a terrorist responsible for countless innocent lives lost. One way or another, he was brought to justice."

Mughniyeh was the mastermind behind a quarter-century of high-profile attacks. In addition to the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, which killed 63 people, and the truck bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks, which killed 241 people, he was indicted in the United States in the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, which ended with the execution of a U.S. Navy diver.

Western governments also blamed him for orchestrating the 1983 bombing of a French barracks in Beirut as well as the long string of kidnappings in Beirut in the 1980s, including those of CIA officer William Buckley, who died in captivity, and then-Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson.

Israel accused Mughniyeh of being behind a 1994 attack on a Buenos Aires Jewish cultural center, which killed 95 people, and the 1992 bombing of Israel's embassy in Argentina.

Israel and the United States long had sought to capture or kill him, but a statement from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office sought to distance Israel from the bombing without explicitly renouncing responsibility.

"Israel is examining the reports from Lebanon and from Syria about the death of a leading Hezbollah activist, and we are learning for the first time the details arising from these reports in the media over the last hours," the statement said. "Israel rejects the attempt by terror groups to attribute to it any involvement in this incident. We have nothing further to add."

Danny Yatom, the former head of Israel's Mossad called Mughniyeh's death "a blow, not only to Hezbollah, but to to their self-confidence."

Yatom compared Mughnieyh’s elusiveness to that of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and called the assassination a "great intelligence achievement."

"In the war on terror the first piece is intelligence," Yatom told Israel Radio. "The intelligence has to be precise you have to know a certain person will be at a certain place at a certain time and so there is certainly deep level of penetration."

Yatom also called Mughniyeh's death a blow to Iran.

"Mughniyeh was the liaison for operations and many of the operations he conducted abroad were in close cooperation with Iranian intelligence," he said.

Yossi Kuperwasser, the former head of military intellgence for the Israeli military, said a lesser-leader was likely to step into Mughniyeh's shoes.

"He was responsible for all the operations of Hezbollah, including those during the Second Lebanon War," Kuperwasser told Israel Radio. "He built the infrastrucure that Hezbollah used in the war, the connection with the Syrians and the Iranians."

"Most of all, this shows Hezbollah that despite the reputation its built itself that it is impossible to penetrate it's center of decision maker, it's center has been penetrated," he said. "You can't get any closer to Nasrallah than Mughniyah."

Miri Ben Ze'ev, whose husband Eli was killed in the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina, expressed mixed feelings.

"There is some joy, though I'm not sure that is the right word, that the man who did what he did and caused suffering to so many families was punished," she told Israel Radio.

Gideon Ezra, Israel's Minister of Environmental Protection, said "many families can bless the fact that justice was done."

The assassination raised tensions in the region, where Hezbollah battled Israel to a military and political draw during a 34-day war in 2006.

Since the cease-fire took hold in August 2006, Israel has accused Hezbollah of stockpiling thousands of new rockets in southern Lebanon. But Israel's northern border with Lebanon largely has remained quiet since then as Hezbollah has been preoccupied with Lebanese politics.

(Nissenbaum reported from Jerusalem, special correspondent Haidar from Damascus. Special correspondents Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem and Miret el Naggar in Cairo, Egypt, contributed to this report.)