BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon’s Hezbollah has appointed a successor to its senior guerrilla commander Imad Moughniyah who was assassinated in Syria this week, a Lebanese security source said on Friday.
The source said the appointment was made hours after the announcement of Moughniyah’s death in a car bomb in Damascus on Tuesday. He did not identify the successor who would now command Hezbollah’s formidable and well-armed guerrilla army.
A joint investigation into the bombing by Syrians, Iranians and Hezbollah was well under way and suspects had been arrested in the Syrian capital, the source said.
Hezbollah and its main backer Iran have accused Israel of killing Moughniyah, who was among the United States’ most wanted men. The Israeli government has denied any links, though its Mossad spy service had been hunting him for two decades.
“A successor to Imad Moughniyah has been appointed, which is natural,” said the source, who requested anonymity. “That’s how Hezbollah works, they move quickly to choose successors of fallen leaders.”
The source said the successor was not one of the two names being circulated in the Israeli media. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has threatened Israel with “open war” in retaliation for the killing.
Moughniyah had been in charge of Hezbollah’s security organ. He gained legendary status in Hezbollah for a string of attacks on Israeli and Western targets in Lebanon in the 1980s.
An Iranian Arabic television station released mobile phone footage of the scene minutes after the blast that killed Moughniyah, chief of the forces of a group that fought a 34-day war against Israel in 2006.
It showed the car on fire and people running past it.
The source said the investigation showed Moughniyah was killed by a car bomb parked close to his car. It was detonated remotely as he walked past after leaving a building he had been visiting.
Early reports said the bomb had been placed inside Moughniyah’s car.
The suspects arrested were mostly Palestinians residing in Syria, the Lebanese source said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki agreed with Syrian officials during a visit to Damascus on Thursday to set up a joint team to investigate the killing, Mottaki’s deputy Alireza Sheik-Attar said on Friday.
Mottaki had attended Moughniyah’s funeral in Beirut.
Moughniyah commanded the Islamic Jihad, a shadowy pro-Iranian group which emerged in Lebanon in the early 1980s and was believed to be linked to Hezbollah.
The group claimed many kidnappings and bombings but disappeared after the release of the last Western hostages in Lebanon shortly after the end of the civil war in 1990.
Moughniyah was implicated in the 1983 bombings of the U.S. embassy and U.S. Marine and French peacekeeping barracks in Beirut, which killed more than 350 people.
Israel accuses Moughniyah of planning the 1994 bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people and of involvement in a 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in the Argentine capital that killed 28.
The United States indicted him for his role in planning and participating in the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner and the killing of an American passenger.
Editing by Robert Woodward