One Irish peacekeeper was killed and another seriously injured in Lebanon after being attacked by armed locals angry at the United Nations presence in their village, preliminary assessments by the UN have determined.
Private Seán Rooney (24) from Dundalk, Co Louth, was killed and trooper Shane Kearney (22) from Killeagh, Co Cork, was seriously injured when their vehicle came under attack late on Wednesday night.
The armoured vehicle carrying the soldiers was carrying out a routine journey from the Unifil area of operations to Beirut airport when it became separated from its accompanying vehicle and left the approved route.
It entered the coastal village of Al-Aqbieh, where it encountered a group of locals who had been watching the World Cup match between France and Morocco. The villagers became angry at the presence of the UN vehicle. They formed a blockade around it and started to attack it.
The driver of the vehicle attempted to drive away to safety. Local media, quoting the town’s mayor Bassam Jaafar, said the Irish vehicle hit and injured a resident in the process. These reports could not be independently verified. The mayor said UN forces are “not allowed in the village but only on the main roads”.
The Irish soldiers’ vehicle started to come under small arms fire but it is not known if this happened before or after the alleged incident with the pedestrian.
It continued to come under fire as the driver picked up speed and tried to take evasive action. The vehicle then hit the side of a shop and tipped over.
Pte Rooney was hit in the head with at least one bullet and died a short time later. Trooper Kearney suffered serious injuries and remains in a critical condition. The two other Irish soldiers on board suffered more minor injuries.
Images from the scene show multiple bullet holes in the right side of the vehicle. Al-Aqbieh is in Hizbullah-controlled territory but the group denied any involvement yesterday. Several investigations will now take place, including by the Defence Forces, the UN and local authorities.
The Defence Forces investigation will focus on how the vehicle became separated from its accompanying armoured vehicle and why it deviated from the main route. Sources suggested poor signage or a weak GPS signal might have caused the soldiers, who arrived in Lebanon three weeks ago, to become lost.
The investigation will also examine if the attackers were organised or incited by a third party.
Relations between Unfil peacekeepers and locals have been strained in recent years, leading to several clashes, including one involving Irish troops last January.
Violence of the type seen on Wednesday is extremely rare, however. There has not been a combat death among the 10,000 strong mission since 2015. It has been 23 years since an Irish peacekeeper died in combat there.
Defence sources said locals may have been under the mistaken impression that UN troops can travel only when accompanied by the Lebanese army. Earlier this year, the UN Security Council updated Unfil’s mandate, granting troops additional freedom of movement. This drew criticism from Hizbullah, which claimed it infringed the country’s sovereignty.
Speaking at the UN Security Council, which held a minute’s silence for Pte Rooney on Thursday, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said it was unclear whether this was a “deliberate targeting or an accident that got out of hand”. He said Ireland “will demand the truth”.
Mr Coveney said Lebanon’s ministers for defence and foreign affairs had promised him full co-operation in any investigation.