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ELUSIVE TERROR SUSPECT KILLED

Imad Mugniyah was almost as sought after as Osama bin Laden.

A top Hezbollah commander, long sought by the United States for his role in terrorist attacks that killed hundreds of Americans in the 1980s, died Tuesday night in Damascus when a bomb detonated under the car he was in, Syrian officials said.

No one claimed credit for killing Imad Mugniyah, who had been in hiding for many years and was one of the most wanted and elusive terrorists in the world.

Mugniyah, 45, was suspected of planning the devastating 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and a Marine barracks in Beirut; the hijacking of a TWA jetliner in 1985; and a series of high-profile kidnappings in the 1980s, among other crimes. Israel accused him of helping plan the 1992 bombing of its embassy in Buenos Aires, in which 29 people were killed, and of the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in the city, in which 85 people died.

The 1983 embassy bombing was a particularly sharp blow to U.S. efforts because a regional meeting of CIA operatives was under way and key personnel were killed.

Although he had not been accused of planning new attacks in more than a decade, U.S. officials sometimes referred to Mugniyah and his Hezbollah peers as the "A team" of international terrorism because of their cold professionalism and secrecy.

Widely believed to have undergone plastic surgery to avoid detection, Mugniyah had not been seen in public for years and was thought to move between Iran, Syria and Lebanon. Before 2001, he had been involved in more terrorist attacks against Americans than any other individual, and at one point he had a $25-million U.S. bounty on his head.

"The world is a better place without this man in it," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack on Wednesday.

Hezbollah announced Mugniyah's death hours after reports first emerged late Tuesday night that a powerful bomb had exploded under an SUV in an upscale Damascus neighborhood, killing its occupant.

Hezbollah did not say how or where Mugniyah was killed, but the Syrian state news agency confirmed Wednesday night that he was killed in the Damascus bombing, citing Interior Minister Bassam Abdul-Majeed of Syria, who said Syria "condemns this cowardly terrorist act and offers condolences to the martyr's family and to the Lebanese people."

Hezbollah's Al Manar television station hailed Mugniyah as a hero. "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 the 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.

In a statement, the office of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel said, "Israel rejects the attempt by terrorist elements to ascribe to it any involvement whatsoever in this incident."

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."

Syria normally maintains very tight control over security, especially in the capital. For that reason, there was also widespread speculation Wednesday that Syria might have cooperated in the bombing, possibly as part of a deal with Israel or the United States.

Asked in Washington whether the United States had played any role in the killing of Mugniyah, Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman, would say only that he was "not familiar with the circumstances of the death."

Even in the post-Sept. 11 world, with the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders a top priority, the U.S. government never gave up the hunt for Mugniyah, who was sometimes reported to be living in Tehran.

Magnus Ranstorp, a counterterrorism expert at the Swedish National Defense College and the author of an authoritative book on Hezbollah, said that U.S. intelligence agencies maintained a team dedicated to finding Mugniyah.

There were several near misses, including a 1995 plan to nab him when his plane landed in Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials reportedly refused to let the plane land.

Other nations in the Mideast showed little interest in joining the hunt for such a dangerous man.

The CIA long considered Mugniyah's organization more dangerous than al-Qaida, largely because his group was backed by Iran, even as al-Qaida began to attack American targets in the late 1990s.

Information from the New York Times and McClatchy Newspapers was used in this report.

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