by Muntasser Abdallah

SIDON, Lebanon (AFP) – A leader of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, Mahmoud al-Majzub, has been killed in a car bomb attack in Lebanon’s main southern city of Sidon. Majzub’s brother Nidal, who had been beside him at the time of the blast, was killed instantly, while the Jihad militant was taken to hospital gravely wounded.

"Mahmoud al-Majzub succumbed to his wounds despite all the efforts to save his life," said a source from Sidon hospital where he was being treated hours after the blast.

Islamic Jihad, one of the most extreme Palestinian movements and responsible for all the most recent suicide attacks inside Israel, vowed to take revenge. But the Israeli army insisted it was not responsible.

"This crime will not pass without a strong response from the movement," a statement from the hardline group in Gaza City said. "The deputy secretary general of Islamic Jihad, Ziad Nakhala, holds the Zionist enemy entirely responsible for the assassination attempt on Mahmoud al-Majzub," the group said, just before his death was confirmed.

Lebanese security services said the bomb, placed inside the two men’s car, was detonated by remote control just after they left their home. Majzub, also known as Abu Hamza, was a top political official for Islamic Jihad in Lebanon. After the explosion, doctors told AFP the 40-year-old’s chances of survival were "minimal".

The bomb went off in a highly populated area in the north of the city. No-one else was wounded, despite shrapnel covering a wide area. Majzub was known to have taken personal security measures, including changing cars and varying his route. He had been injured in a similar attack in Sidon two years ago, which also wounded his wife and child.

Lebanese security sources said Majzub directed operations "inside" the Palestinian territories. The head of Islamic Jihad in Lebanon, Abu Imad Rifai, blamed Israel for Friday’s attack.

"The Israeli occupation forces are entirely responsible for this attack, aimed at undermining the current Palestinian national dialogue," he told AFP. "The message is clear." Talks aimed at trying to resolve the current Palestinian political crisis were launched by Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas on Thursday.

"This is not the first time Islamic Jihad has been a Mossad target," Rifai said, referring to Israeli’s secret service. The Israel military said it was not involved in the attack on Majzub. "It was nothing to do with us", an army spokesman told AFP.

An official of the fundamentalist Sunni Lebanese group, Jamaa Islamiyaa, also said the explosion bore "the hallmarks of Israel". "Israel seeks out all symbols of the resistance, and Abu Hamza was known for his militancy," Bassam Hammoud told AFP in Sidon.

An estimated 400,000 registered Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, more than half of them in 12 camps around the south of the country. The government in Beirut backs their right of return to the lands from which they were expelled after the creation of Israel in 1948.

Earlier this month Israel had deliberately targeted militants for assassination. Defence Minister Amir Peretz on May 15 welcomed two military operations in the West Bank the previous day that killed six Palestinians, among them an Islamic Jihad military chief.