The bullet which was fired in the attack in which Private Seán Rooney was killed entered through the rear of the vehicle, preliminary investigations have found, indicating a targeted killing.
Pte Seán Rooney (24), from Dundalk, Co Louth, died and trooper Shane Kearney (22), from Killeagh, Co Cork, remains in hospital in a critical but stable condition after shots were fired at their vehicle when it encountered a blockade on Wednesday night. The two other Irish soldiers on board suffered minor injuries and remain in hospital.
The armoured SUV carrying the four soldiers was fitted with bullet proof glass which held up to the multiple gunshots which were fired during the attack.
This indicates the fatal shot was fired through a rear window or through an open rear door. The glass in some of rear windows was either removed by the attackers or came out when the vehicle crashed.
The firing of the bullet from the rear of the vehicle through a broken window or open door indicates Pte Rooney’s death was of a targeted nature, rather than the result of a haphazard spray of bullets, a defence source said.
At least five shell casings have been recovered. They are believed to come from an assault rifle style weapon.
It is not known if Irish Army personnel returned fire during the incident or if their weapons have since been recovered. A Defence Forces spokesman said its investigation will cover this matter and declined to comment further.
Separately, liaison is ongoing with An Garda Síochána who may be asked to deploy detectives or forensic experts to assist the Defence Forces Military Police team, The Irish Times understands.
The Government is also deploying an Air Corps aircraft to the region where it will remain on standby to transport Pte Rooney’s remains home.
Minister for Defence and Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney met with the deceased’s family on Friday afternoon in Dundalk on his return from a security council meeting in New York. He is to meet soon with the family of Trooper Shane Kearney, who remains in a critical condition after the attack.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin on Friday said Ireland is determined to establish the truth in relation to the incident. Speaking in Brussels, Mr Martin said “our thoughts and prayers are with the families of Seán Rooney ... and our hearts go out to his mother and his family and his fiancée”.
A number of investigations have been ordered into the incident which happened as the soldiers were taking part in a routine journey from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) base to Beirut airport. One of two vehicles travelling in the convoy left the approved route and was met by hostile locals in the coastal village of Al-Aqbieh and attacked.
Meanwhile, the country’s caretaker prime minister has said those responsible for an attack in southern Lebanon in which an Irish peacekeeper died and another was seriously injured will be held responsible and “punished”.
Acting Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati said in a statement on Friday that investigations into the incident were ongoing. He added that those responsible for the death of Pte Rooney “will be punished”.
Mr Mikati and Lebanon’s chief army commander visited the Unifil headquarters in the south of the country on Friday to pay their respects. He said Lebanon remained committed to a 2006 UN resolution that expanded the peacekeeping mission’s presence.
The vehicle which came under attack was removed from the scene on Thursday night and taken to a secure facility for technical and ballistic examination. It is understood that at least five bullets of assault rifle calibre have been removed from the vehicle, indicating the attackers were using AK-47 style weapons.
Southern Lebanon is a stronghold for Hizbullah, an armed group and heavyweight political party backed by Iran. Hizbullah denied having a role in the attack, saying it was an “unintentional incident” between residents and the UN forces. Minister for Defence Simon Coveney said he did not accept this assurance and would await the outcome of the investigations.
Relations between Unfil peacekeepers and locals have been strained in recent years, leading to several clashes, including one involving Irish troops last January.
However, violence of the nature seen on Wednesday is extremely rare. There has not been a combat death among the 10,000 strong Unifil mission since 2015. It has been 23 years since an Irish peacekeeper died in combat there.
Asked if there was any more information on what led to the incident, Mr Martin said he was “very reluctant to get into detail because I think we do need to allow the investigations to take their course”.
“These are peacekeepers and we owe it to them and to their families to get to the truth,” he said.
The Defence Forces on Friday said it had dispatched a specialised team to Lebanon to provide support to Pte Rooney’s colleagues in the 121st Battalion. The group of eight personnel includes four members of the Defence Forces Personal Support Services, who will form a “critical incident response team”.
Three military police and one legal officer, who will assist in the investigation into the attack, have also travelled.
Pte Rooney’s battalion commander, Lt Col Frank Coakley, on Friday paid tribute to the late soldier and his family, who he said were rooted in the military through the 27th Infantry Battalion.
Lt Col Coakley told RTÉ's Morning Ireland that three of Pte Rooney’s uncles serve in the same Dundalk-based battalion. He said this was the young soldier’s second tour in Lebanon.
Lt Col Coakley paid tribute to staff at Finner Camp who received the call at 2am on Thursday and had to visit Pte Rooney’s mother Natasha at 4am to break the news of his death rather than allowing his relatives to hear about it elsewhere.