Top Hezbollah Leader Killed in Bombing

A top Hezbollah leader died Wednesday in a bombing in Syria. Imad Mughniyeh is accused of attacks that left hundreds of Americans and Israelis dead. Hezbollah blamed Israel for the assassination, but Israel denied responsibility. Beirut-based reporter Leena Saidi discusses the latest developments.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. One of the top leaders of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has died in a bombing in Damascus, Syria. He is said to be behind attacks that left hundreds of Americans and Israelis dead, including the hijacking of a TWA jetliner in 1985. Hezbollah immediately blamed Israel for the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh. Israel immediately denied responsibility. Reporter Leena Saidi has been following this story, and joins us from Beirut. And welcome to the program.

LEENA SAIDI: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So Israel denies killing him. Who else would be behind this bombing?

SAIDI: Well, according to Hezbollah, of course, as you said, they have accused Israel of being behind this bombing. Other people behind the bombing would be anybody who wanted, maybe, civil unrest in Lebanon itself. Because at the moment here in Lebanon, tensions are very high. We have two opposing camps -the pro-government camp and the opposition - who have been clashing on the streets, and a lot of rhetoric has been thrown about between the two sides, leaving a lot of young people wanting to pick a fight. And an assassination like this is probably enough to take things to the brink.

MONTAGNE: So there are at least a couple of scenarios there in terms of his death. The man himself, Mughniyeh, is described as either a special operations or intelligence chief of Hezbollah's very secretive military wing. What do we know about his role?

SAIDI: All we know about his role, of course, is the accusations that he has masterminded a lot of activities in the '80s when Hezbollah was first formed, including the kidnapping of many foreign nationals who resided here in Lebanon. It included the bombing of the Marine barracks, the U.S. Marine barracks, and the French army barracks. Also, two attacks on the U.S. embassy, all in the early '80s. And this was followed by the hijacking of the TWA that ended up with an American naval officer being killed.

MONTAGNE: Well, all of this has put him high on the most-wanted lists in both Israel and the United States. He's been hiding for years. Does that mean he's had that much influence in Hezbollah?

SAIDI: He has been in hiding for years. We know that he's been in hiding for, like, over 20 years, and it's said that he's also had reconstructive surgery on his face.

MONTAGNE: To change his look?

SAIDI: Yes. That's, again, one of - a lot of what we know about Imad Mughniyeh is based on rumor rather than fact, because his life has been very, very secretive. And it's been said that he's lived in most of the part - in Iran itself, with trips to Syria, where he has been spotted. We have no idea if he's been in and out of Lebanon. But I would imagine, like, his security - if he had been here in Lebanon - would be very, very strict. While he was Syria, probably, it was a bit more lax, because they believed that it was a safer country to be in.

MONTAGNE: Well, how big of a blow is his death to Hezbollah?

SAIDI: It's a huge blow. It's - well, I wouldn't say devastating, but it's definitely huge. Because, you know, if you can get an operative who's been in hiding so successfully for so long in a friendly country to Hezbollah like Syria, what would it say about other Hezbollah leaders who actually reside in Lebanon, which itself is a very open country and has had so many assassination attempts on other people?

MONTAGNE: Reporter Leena Saidi, speaking from Beirut on the news that one of the top leaders of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has been killed.

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