One of the world's most wanted terrorists has been killed in a car bomb explosion in the Syrian capital Damascus.
Imad Mughniyeh, who had a US bounty of $25m (€33.7m) on his head, is suspected of involvement in the killings of hundreds of Americans as well as a series of attacks against US, Israeli and Jewish targets.
The shadowy Mughniyeh, a top figure in the Iranian and Syrian-backed Shiite Hezbollah militant group, was one of the most notorious terror figures of the 1980s and 1990s but had virtually vanished for the past 15 years.
He was implicated in 1983 bombings of the US Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut that killed more than 300 people, the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight in which an American Navy diver was killed and the kidnappings of numerous Americans in Lebanon.
Hezbollah blamed Israel for his death, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said it "rejects the attempt by terror groups to attribute to it any involvement in this incident".
The blast, the first major attack against a leader of Hezbollah since a 1992 helicopter strike that killed the organisation's secretary-general Sheik Abbas Mussawi in southern Lebanon, could dramatically heighten tensions between Israel and the Shiite militant group, as well as its Iranian and Syrian backers. Israel and Hezbollah fought a war in 2006 that devastated south Lebanon.
A prominent Shiite Muslim cleric close to Hezbollah called for the group's military wing to retaliate.
"Every attack against the resistance (Hezbollah) will be met by with a response from the resistance," the head of south Lebanon's religious scholars, Sheik Afif al-Naboulsi, said.
"An eye for an eye … a person for a person and a leader for a leader."
Hezbollah, whose top leader Hassan Nasrallah has been largely in hiding since the 2006 war fearing Israeli assassination, did not immediately threaten revenge.
In a statement, the group said Mughniyeh "became a martyr at the hands of the Zionist Israelis", referring to him as one of the founders of the group and as "one of the makers of liberation and the glorious victory in the July (2006) war".
The killing could also prove an embarrassment for Syria, revealing that Mughniyeh was present in the country.
Syria is host to a number of radical Palestinian leaders and faces accusations from Washington that it supports terrorism. In September, Israeli warplanes struck a site in the deserts of eastern Syria believed by some to be a fledgling nuclear facility or a military base.
The blast took place late yesterday in the Kafar Soussa residential district of the Syrian capital.
It sends a strong warning to the Damascus-based leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group which is backed by Iran. In 2004, a Hamas activist survived a similar bombing that destroyed his vehicle on a Damascus street shortly after he and his family stepped out.
It also could further stir up turmoil in deeply divided Lebanon, where Hezbollah is locked in a bitter power struggle with the Western-backed government.
Hezbollah called for a massive gathering of its supporters for Mughniyeh's funeral in southern Beirut tomorrow.