The back door of the United Nations 4X4 that Irish troops in Lebanon were travelling in was deliberately opened at a roadblock before gunmen chased after it and fired through the rear killing Pte Seán Rooney, Irish investigators suspect.
The 24-year-old was murdered in the ambush in Al-Aqbieh last Wednesday night during a routine journey to Beirut airport while serving with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. His remains left Beirut on Sunday afternoon on board an Irish Air Corps CASA aircraft for repatriation. The aircraft was expected to arrive at Baldonnel early on Monday morning ahead of a ceremony there at 8.30am, when Pte Rooney’s remains were set to be reunited with his family.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said it was important the three investigations under way – by the Irish and Lebanese authorities, and at UN level – would establish exactly what happened. “It’s also important that we avoid any speculation I think at this point until those investigations are done,” Mr Varadkar said.
Trooper Shane Kearney, who was with Pte Rooney when the attack occurred, remained in a serious condition in a UN-controlled Lebanese hospital last night, though he is now able to breathe unassisted. The other two Irish soldiers in the vehicle suffered more minor injuries and were last night being cared for at a medical aid post in Camp Shamrock after their discharge from hospital.
Those two troops have been debriefed by battalion operations staff and military police and their witness accounts looked set to prove crucial to establishing how the attack happened. However, sources said determining the political background to Pte Rooney’s killing would be more complex.
The Hizbullah militia has distanced itself from the murder, though the killing occurred in an area where the group holds a dominant influence. The investigations will seek to establish if the gunmen were members of Hizbullah or the Amal movement, or acting on orders from either group.
Three Garda members selected to aid the criminal inquiry into the attack arrived in Lebanon at the weekend. Two of the Garda members, a detective superintendent and detective inspector, are from the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the force’s serious crimes squad. The third member, a detective sergeant from the Garda Technical Bureau, is a ballistics expert.
Garda sources said ballistics expertise would be used to establish how many shots were fired at the Irish personnel and how many guns were discharged by the attackers, as well as the direction and distance the shots were fired in.
Pte Rooney and his three colleagues were travelling in a two-vehicle convoy when they became separated, appeared to go off course and happened upon a roadblock. It is understood they were surrounded by a hostile mob before the vehicle was driven off and then crashed a short distance away while being fired upon.
While the armoured vehicle withstood multiple rounds fired at it, one line of inquiry is that the back of the 4X4 had been opened by members of the hostile crowd and, when it crashed, the fatal shots were fired at Pte Rooney through the open back door at close range.
Cathal Berry TD (Ind), a former Army officer who led the Army Ranger Wing in Chad, said that to confirm the identity of those who fired the shots and bring charges against them, it was likely the French and US authorities would need to put pressure on Lebanon.
He said it was “immaterial” that the ambushed vehicle had become separated from Irish troops in a second 4X4, saying none of the circumstances immediately before the shots were fired could offer any justification for what happened.
“Let’s call it what it was. It was murder and attempted murder. Plain and simple,” Mr Berry said. “The perpetrators must be handed over to Lebanese authorities immediately for questioning. Ireland must now mobilise and exercise all its political and diplomatic clout to bring these gunmen to justice.”