Irish investigators arrive in Lebanon to investigate murder of UNIFIL peacekeeper

While Hezbollah has distanced itself from the murder, Lebanese media and officials have reiterated demands the group be disarmed.

 Lebanese army members stand near of what witnesses stated to be the UNIFIL vehicle that was carrying the Irish soldier who was killed on a U.N. peacekeeping Patrol, in Al-Aqbieh, south Lebanon December 15, 2022 (photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)
Lebanese army members stand near of what witnesses stated to be the UNIFIL vehicle that was carrying the Irish soldier who was killed on a U.N. peacekeeping Patrol, in Al-Aqbieh, south Lebanon December 15, 2022
(photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)

Investigators from the Irish Defence Forces, Military Police and An Garda Síochána, as well as a lawyer from Dublin, arrived in Lebanon on Monday to investigate the murder of Irish UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) peacekeeper Seán Rooney last week, according to national broadcaster Raidió Teilifís Éireann.

The Irish team includes a detective superintendent and a detective inspector from the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation as well as a detective sergeant from the Garda Technical Bureau.

Last Wednesday, the Irish Defence Forces announced that Rooney was killed after a convoy of armored UNIFIL vehicles came under small arms fire in Aaqbiyeh while traveling to Beirut. An additional Irish peacekeeper was critically injured and is still in critical condition as of writing.

Video from the scene showed one of the UNIFIL vehicles driving around cars that had blocked the road as a number of gunshots were fired at the UNIFIL vehicle. Photos from the day after showed bullet holes in the windows of the UNIFIL vehicle.

 Members of UNIFIL peacekeepers carry the coffin of Irish soldier Sean Rooney who was killed on a U.N. peacekeeping Patrol, during a repatriation ceremony at Beirut international airport, in Beirut, Lebanon December 18, 2022. (credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS) Members of UNIFIL peacekeepers carry the coffin of Irish soldier Sean Rooney who was killed on a U.N. peacekeeping Patrol, during a repatriation ceremony at Beirut international airport, in Beirut, Lebanon December 18, 2022. (credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS)

The Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Mayadeen TV reported that the incident was preceded by a protest by local residents against the UNIFIL patrol which had taken a detour from its usual route.

A Hezbollah official named Wafiq Safa told Reuters soon after the murder that it was an "unintentional incident" and asked that Hezbollah not be "inserted" into the incident.

Hezbollah opponents in Lebanon blame terrorist org. for incident

Despite Hezbollah's statement, Lebanese media and officials questioned whether the incident was actually an accident and reiterated demands that Hezbollah be disarmed.

Lebanon's Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi expressed outrage at the incident on Sunday, calling it an "assassination" and stating "this Irish soldier, who came to Lebanon to protect the peace of the south, was martyred by a bullet of hatred that assassinated him."

Without mentioning Hezbollah by name, Rahi called for the Lebanese government to "put its hands on every unlawful and illegal weapon and implement [UNSC] Resolution 1701 in letter and spirit because its implementation so far has been selective and arbitrary and restricted by the decision of the de-facto forces, while the state bites at its own wound and restricts its capabilities for the benefit of others." Rahi has often spoken out against Hezbollah and called for the state to seize its weapons.

The Nidaa al-Watan newspaper reported on Monday that a Lebanese security report had found that 27 gunshots were fired from several directions, with the experts who wrote the report writing that this indicated that "the incident was not spontaneous, and no decision was taken by the concerned authorities in the region to control the situation immediately after the problem occurred.”

The newspaper added that Lebanese officials had contacted Hezbollah and warned the movement that "the issue has become embarrassing" and that an "appropriate way out” must be found quickly. According to the newspaper, during a conversation between a Hezbollah official and the commander of UNIFIL, the commander stated that "if you are not directly responsible for the incident, then you bear the responsibility of mobilizing the popular environment in the south against us."

Rooney's body was flown from Lebanon to Ireland on Sunday. At a ceremony that saw Rooney off in Beirut, UNIFIL commander Aroldo Lázaro stated that "Private Rooney proudly contributed to the mission as a valuable member of an exemplary unit.”

UNIFIL has called for a swift investigation into the incident and stressed that it will "redouble" its efforts to accomplish its mandate.

Lebanon's National Defense Minister Maurice Salim visited the headquarters of the Irish UNIFIL battalion in southern Lebanon on Monday to offer his condolences and to meet with the UNIFIL head of mission, the commander and officers of the Irish battalion and the Irish Ambassador to Egypt and Lebanon Nuala O'Brien.

Hezbollah at center of tensions in Rmeish as well

Hezbollah was also at the center of another incident on Saturday after members of the Green Without Borders association affiliated with the terrorist movement began building a road on property reportedly belonging to residents of the town of Rmeish. 

"The town's lands, properties, and livelihoods are exposed to encroachment, transgression, and threats to some owners by the de facto forces in the region, as these forces bulldoze large areas of land, uproot trees, construct structures and use heavy equipment to dig in forests owned by the people of Rmeish," said residents of the town in a statement issued on Saturday, according to Elnashra. "These actions are taking place in full view of the Lebanese army, which operates in an area subject to Resolution 1701 in the south, amid great objection and indignation from the people."

The IDF has noted in the past that Hezbollah uses the Green Without Borders environmental organization as a cover for observation posts and for terrorist activity near the border with Israel.

In September 2019, Hezbollah fired several anti-tank missiles toward an IDF base and military vehicles near Avivim. A technical investigation by UNIFIL found that the anti-tank missiles had been launched from an area controlled by the Green Without Borders organization.