The two-hour drive between Beirut Airport and the Unifil (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) area of operations in south Lebanon is very familiar to the thousands of Irish men and women who have served in the country.
Starting in the south near the historic city of Tyre and travelling up through Sidon, the highway is used to bring personnel into the mission area, to transport supplies and to repatriate troops.
Most journeys are made in Armoured Utility Vehicles (AUVs), essentially 4x4s with extra armour plating. At least two vehicles must be present in each convoy. The soldiers typically carry weapons and are required to wear flak jackets and helmets. However, although it passes through areas largely controlled by Hizbullah, the route has long been regarded as safe.
So what happened to Irish vehicle carrying four Defence Forces troops when it was attacked while making the routine journey to the airport on Wednesday night?
Pte Sean Rooney (24), from Newtowncunningham, Co Donegal, was killed and Trooper Shane Kearney (22) seriously injured when their AUV was surrounded and attacked by an armed mob in the village of Al-Aqbieh, just a few miles north of the Unifil area of operations late on Wednesday night. Two of their colleagues suffered minor injuries in the incident.
Initial indications are that Pte Rooney’s vehicle entered the village after becoming separated from the other AUV in the convoy. Local media reports suggest people in the village were angered by the presence of UN troops and decided to attack, although it is not yet clear if there was any pre-planning involved.
The presence of the vehicle in Al-Aqbieh suggests it had deviated slightly from the normal route to Beirut Airport. Convoys are supposed to stick to approved routes but Defence sources said there are many reasons why a vehicle might have to take a detour.
Signage and lighting in southern Lebanon are often inadequate, and GPS signals are weak, meaning soldiers can sometimes get lost. This is particularly the case if they arere not long in the country. The members of the convoy attacked on Wednesday only arrived in Lebanon three weeks ago. Roads can also be blocked, either intentionally or by accident, meaning routes have to be changed.
Deviations from approved routes are not uncommon and usually pass off without incident. However, in recent years standoffs with locals, known in UN parlance as “denial of freedom of movement”, have become more common. On occasion, Defence Forces vehicles have been attacked with stones, and there have been attempts made to disarm soldiers.
This has occurred against a backdrop of generally increasing tensions in the south of country where Unifil operates, tensions compounded by an economic crisis that has left 80 per cent of Lebanese citizens in poverty.
Last January, UN troops on patrol in Ramyeh in the south came under attack, and one peacekeeper was injured. Three weeks previously Irish troops were attacked in the town of Bint Jbeil. The Irish vehicles were vandalised and some items were stolen.
Irish peacekeepers have long had a good relationship with locals in sector west, the section of the Unifil zone where they operate. This has been built up through years of civilian-military relations work, including the building of local infrastructure by the Defence Forces.
However, outside sector west Irish troops are still viewed with the same suspicion as other Unifil peacekeepers.
What role, if any, Hizbullah has played in these incidents is unclear. It has denied having any involvement in Wednesday’s attack, and it usually co-operates closely UN forces.
However, the group, whose military wing is considered a terrorist organisation by the EU and US, has been increasingly critical of Unifil operations since earlier this year when peacekeepers received a widened mandate from the UN Security Council allowing them more freedom of movement. At the time, Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah described the new rules as “a violation of Lebanese sovereignty”.