The remains of Pte Seán Rooney, who was killed in an ambush while serving on a United Nations (UN) mission in Lebanon on Wednesday night, have left Beirut on Sunday evening to be repatriated.
An Irish Air Corps CASA aircraft was due to depart Beirut at 2pm, with his remains due to be released to the murdered soldier’s family at a ceremony in Casement Aerodromesol Baldonnel, Co Dublin, on Monday morning.
“Private Seán Rooney is now on the way home. Your duty is done a chara, you have earned your rest,” the Defence Forces said in a tweet shortly after 5pm.
A UN ceremony was held to honour Pte Rooney in Beirut Airport before his departure. The Air Corps sent an aircraft to the region on Saturday, and it has been on standby to repatriate Pte Rooney’s remains, which has taken several days due to a postmortem being performed in Lebanon.
The soldier (24) was shot dead when his UN vehicle was attacked by an armed group in Al-Aqbieh during a routine journey to Beirut airport on Wednesday.
Trooper Shane Kearney remains in a critical condition following the attack while two other Irish soldiers suffered more minor injuries. They were both released from hospital on Saturday.
Three Defence Forces military police personnel and one legal officer have deployed to the country to assist in the Irish investigation. Another four psychological support personnel have also deployed.
They have been joined by a delegation of gardaí who will “act in a liaison role with local law enforcement and other agencies investigating the attack on Irish UN peacekeepers on Wednesday night”, a Garda spokesman said on Friday.
The three-person team includes a Detective Superintendent and a Detective Inspector from the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation and a Detective Sergeant from Garda Technical Bureau who is a ballistics expert
One focus of the investigation will be exactly how Pte Rooney was killed. Preliminary investigations show the fatal shot was fired through a rear window or through an open rear door, indicating a more targeted killing rather than random gunfire. Investigators believe the boot of the vehicle may have been opened by one of the mob when it stopped at the blockade. The jeep then drove away with the rear door open, while two men with guns gave chase and fired through the open rear door.
A number of assault rifle-style rounds have been recovered from the vehicle. 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.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said it was important to “avoid speculation” over the circumstances behind Pte Rooney’s death until the investigations are completed. He also said the dead soldier would receive military honours for his death in service.
“He’ll be offered military honours, which I think is appropriate given the circumstances,” Mr Varadkar said. He said he was confident that the three investigations which have been launched will find out exactly what happened, why an Irish soldier lost his life and why another was severely injured.
Mr Varadkar said Pte Rooney’s death was a reminder of how important the mission in Lebanon is, outlining how it has allowed people in southern Lebanon to lead a relatively normal life for decades “which wouldn’t be the case otherwise”. He said more than 40,000 Irish people have served in Lebanon and it is a mission “we’re very committed to”.
Speaking on RTÉ's The Week in Politics, Minister for Enterprise Simon Coveney said he had spoken to the Lebanese foreign minister and defence minister “in very blunt terms” about the level of co-operation expected by Irish investigators.
“And we will get to the bottom of what happened here and the truth,” he said. “We owe that to all of our Defence Forces personnel and in particular Seán Rooney’s family.”
Mr Coveney said the latest news on Trooper Kearney’s condition was positive. “The news there is more optimistic than it has been to date,” he said. He’s making progress. He’s breathing again now independently. His head injuries are being managed and doing well given the circumstances and the seriousness of his injuries. So some optimism there I’m glad to report.”
Trooper Kearney will also return home shortly, Mr Coveney said. “And of course we’re also putting plans in place to bring him home to make sure he can continue to get the necessary specialist supports that he needs here at home as soon as it’s safe to travel with,” he said.
Mr Coveney said he was not accepting Hizbullah’s denials of involvement at face value.
“I do not accept Hizbullah’s statement [that] this an unintentional crash effectively and that it has nothing to do with them,” he said.
“The truth is that Hizbullah control a lot of people and a lot of weapons in that region and they are part of the problem. And so we will be relying on independent investigations to hold people to account. And when we establish the truth then we will of course ensure that this crime has consequences for the people who are responsible for it, whether that be Hizbullah as an organisation or whether it be individuals that are members of Hizbullah or both.”