Those responsible for Irish soldier's death 'will be punished' - Lebanon PM

The soldier was shot and killed late on Wednesday, and a second soldier was in a critical condition after a hostile crowd surrounded their armored vehicle.

 Lebanese army members secure the area in Al-Aqbiya in southern Lebanon December 15, 2022.  (photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)
Lebanese army members secure the area in Al-Aqbiya in southern Lebanon December 15, 2022.
(photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)

Lebanon's caretaker prime minister Najib Mikati said on Friday that investigations into the killing of an Irish soldier on a UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon were ongoing, adding that those responsible "will be punished," according to a statement.

The soldier was shot and killed late on Wednesday, and a second soldier was in a critical condition after a hostile crowd surrounded their armored vehicle, Ireland's defense minister said on Thursday.

Turning a blind eye

The United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) appeared to effectively turn a blind eye on Thursday to any real consequences for an incident in which some of its troops were killed and injured in Lebanon, though it expressed disdain and sorrow.

A senior Hezbollah official on Thursday said an "unintentional incident" had led to the death of an Irish soldier on a UN peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon the previous evening, saying the armed group was not involved.

Wafiq Safa told Reuters his party offered its condolences "after the unintentional incident that took place between the residents of al-Aqbieh and individuals from the Irish unit," and urged the party not to be "inserted" into the incident.

Despite the Hezbollah official’s pleas to keep the group out of the incident, the group has an iron grip on the use of force in large swaths of Lebanon, including the southern border with Israel where the incident occurred, and is recognized as by far the strongest fighting force.

Further, IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt. Gen. Kohavi echoed past top IDF officials on Wednesday noting that Hezbollah and Hamas have systematically concealed their rockets and weapons among the civilian population.

A United Nations (UN) peacekeeping soldier (credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad)A United Nations (UN) peacekeeping soldier (credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad)

Previous incidents where Hezbollah fired on UNIFIL troops

There have been many past incidents, though not recently, where Hezbollah fired on UNIFIL troops who tried to remove their hidden weapons or even accidentally came near a concealed Hezbollah weapons position.

Also, Hezbollah has a history of trying to cover up unpopular military actions or mistakes that its forces take, including an August 2020 explosion in Beirut that killed over 200 people and left around 300,000 homeless. Strong evidence suggested the explosion was caused by the accidental setting off of some of its concealed explosives in a civilian area, but Hezbollah managed to ward off an investigation into the incident from having any direct consequences for its personnel.

Another member of UNIFIL is in serious condition having undergone surgery following the incident, an Irish defense forces statement said. Two other soldiers are being treated for minor injuries.

"It is with deep regret that Óglaigh na hÉireann (the Irish defense forces) can confirm the death of one of our peacekeepers in a serious incident in Lebanon last night," the defense forces said.

The UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon also said on Thursday that it was coordinating with the Lebanese armed forces and have launched an investigation into the killing.

"At the moment, details are sparse and conflicting," the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) said in a statement. Multiple authorities said the incident would be investigated, but what such an investigation would mean was left vague.

Despite UNIFIL’s downplaying the clarity of the incident, a Lebanese judicial source later told AFP that the peacekeeper was killed by a bullet to the head when seven projectiles pierced the vehicle.

The three others were injured when the vehicle hit a pylon and overturned, the source added.

Witnesses told AFP the vehicle had been blocked by villagers after it took a road along the Mediterranean coast not normally used by the UN force.

“One of them got surrounded by a hostile mob — I think that’s the only way you could describe them — and shots were fired and unfortunately one of our peacekeepers was killed,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told public broadcaster RTE.

AP reported that in January, unknown perpetrators attacked Irish peacekeepers in the southern town of Bint Jbeil, vandalizing their vehicles and stealing items. The residents accused them of taking photographs of residential homes, though the UN mission denied this.

There has been no announcement of the perpetrators being prosecuted in this or in other parallel earlier incidents.

When UNIFIL tried to prevent Hezbollah from expanding its weaponry and power base in 2006, to fulfill its UN mandate, there were a number of skirmishes until the peacekeeping force backed down.

In August, UNIFIL was again given some additional authorities to patrol independently, which Hezbollah opposed and condemned.

The UNIFIL forces are well-known in Lebanon and it is questionable whether a random group of armed people with no connection to a larger group would fire on them without direct or indirect authorization.