There will be “good news” in the near future concerning the investigation into the fatal attack on Irish peacekeepers in Lebanon last week, according to the country’s ambassador to Ireland.
The attack on December 14th in the southern town of Al-Aqbieh left Pte Seán Rooney dead and Trooper Shane Kearney seriously injured when their Unifil vehicle came under heavy gunfire and crashed.
A criminal investigation has since been opened by the Lebanese authorities.
“I think things are going in a very promising direction that won’t be too long before we hear some good news,” Lebanon’s ambassador to the UK and Ireland Rami Mortada told The Irish Times.
There have been multiple reports in recent days that arrests in the case are expected soon. The AFP news agency quote a Lebanese judicial source as saying military investigators have identified two attackers through following interviews with witnesses.
Mr Mortada said he was aware of the reports but could not comment on them as investigations in Lebanon are kept secret until their conclusion.
“I know from the executive side of government that there is a determination to deploy all resources so the investigation is as swift, firm and efficient as possible.”
He said the investigation is being led by the military public prosecutor, who is tasked with investigating threats to state security. “He is the highest public prosecutor in our system and it’s being given the highest priority. I think it’s in good hands.”
Mr Mortada said authorities will bring the perpetrators to justice “whoever they are”.
Parallel investigations by the Defence Forces, assisted by the Garda, and the UN, are also ongoing. The ambassador said Lebanese investigators are co-operating closely with their Irish counterparts and that regular meetings between the two groups have been taking place.
Hizbullah has a strong influence in the town of Al-Aqbieh and it understood the UN is examining if its members played a role in the attack or if it incited the attackers through anti-Unifil propaganda.
Mr Mortada said he does not believe Hizbullah or any other armed group were involved, noting that Hizbullah “immediately distanced themselves from this heinous crime”.
He said no party or group in Lebanon “has the slightest interest in targeting Unifil and particularly in targeting Irish peacekeepers who are highly appreciated in Lebanon”.
The attack should not be “overly interpreted” as signalling a new wave of violence against peacekeepers, he said.
“As tragic as it is, it’s a criminal act. Criminal acts unfortunately do happen. I don’t have the feeling that it reflects a larger reality or that it’s the tip of the iceberg.”
Mr Mortada was in Ireland on Thursday for Pte Rooney’s funeral. He said he exchanged a few words with the bereaved family and “assured them that Seán’s sacrifice would not be in vain and that everything will be done to unveil the whole truth”. He also held a meeting with Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin and assured him of the same, he said.
The attack is “no way reflective of the feelings of the Lebanese towards Irish peacekeepers”, the ambassador said. “You cannot imagine how many phone calls I got from ordinary people in Lebanon who were dismayed and really shocked by this heinous, heinous act.”
An unnamed judicial source quoted by AFP said the vehicle “was the target of gunfire from at least two people” and revealed that preliminary findings showed the incident “was premeditated and the patrol was surveilled and followed by a car carrying armed men”.
A former Lebanese government minister contacted by The Irish Times ruled out involvement of people from outside Al-Aqbieh and said the authorities want to conduct the inquiry “without confronting the whole village”. He said Lebanese must “coexist with Unifil”, which Irish peacekeepers joined during its initial 1978 deployment as a buffer between Lebanon and Israel.
He argued the Lebanese government and army would “get the whole story” as they want to prove to Ireland their “capacity” to resolve the “tragedy” despite Lebanon’s political deadlock and economic collapse.