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US offers $10m for information on Hezbollah operative convicted in Hariri killing

A UN-backed tribunal had sentenced Salim Ayyash in absentia to life in prison over the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri
Photos of Salim Ayyash released by the US State Department (Rewards for Justice)
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Washington

The US State Department is offering up to $10m for information on Salim Ayyash, a Hezbollah member who was convicted in an international tribunal for the 2005 killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The administration announced the bounty on Monday through its Rewards for Justice programme, describing Ayyash as a "senior operative in the assassination unit of the terrorist organization Lebanese Hezbollah".

"Ayyash is a senior operative in Hezbollah’s Unit 121, the group’s assassinations squad which receives its orders directly from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah," the State Department said in a statement.

"Ayyash is known to have been involved in efforts to harm US military personnel."

Last year, a UN-backed tribunal in the Hague sentenced Ayyash in absentia to life in prison over his involvement in the assassination of Hariri. He was the sole suspect to be convicted in the international trial. 

Three other Hezbollah members were acquitted due to a lack of sufficient evidence. Ayyash's whereabouts remain unknown, and Hezbollah denies involvement in the killing of Hariri.

A billionaire whose rise to the premiership in the 1990s has become synonymous with reconstruction efforts after Lebanon's 15-year civil war, Hariri was killed in an enormous car bomb in Beirut in 2005. The bombing also killed 21 other people and wounded hundreds. 

Hariri's killing was a catalyst for calls and protests against the Syrian military's presence and influence in Lebanon. 

The American offer for money in exchange for information on Ayyash's location comes at a time when the Lebanese economy is enduring growing political and economic crises amid a political deadlock between its leading political parties.

The late Hariri's son, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, has been struggling to form a new cabinet because of deep disagreements with President Michel Aoun - a Hezbollah ally - over the size and the shape of the government - all while the country's currency continues to depreciate.

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The Lebanese pound has lost more than 85 percent of its value since October 2019.

The Rewards for Justice programme has several Hezbollah-related bounties. Last year, Washington offered as much as $10m for information on Hezbollah operative Muhammad Kawtharani, who is said to be overseeing the Lebanese group's activities in Iraq.

In 2019, the State Department also announced a $10m reward for information that would disrupt Hezbollah's finances.

It is not clear how effective the reward scheme is when it comes to Hezbollah, whose members largely operate in secrecy despite enjoying strong popular support in many parts of Lebanon.

The State Department says the Rewards for Justice programme has paid more than $200m since its inception in 1984.

On Monday, many Hezbollah supporters shared social media posts in support of Ayyash after the American bounty was announced, using the Arabic hashtags: "I am Salim Ayyash" and "We are Salim Ayyash."

Bahaa Hariri, the slain prime minister's oldest son who holds more hawkish views against Hezbollah than his brother Saad, praised the American reward for information on Ayyash.

"I welcome this initiative by the Biden administration to punish one of the perpetrators of the assassination of my father, the martyr Rafik Hariri. I've always said that justice must prevail," Bahaa Hariri wrote on Twitter.