Lebanese authorities are questioning a suspect in the murder of Irish peacekeeper Seán Rooney and have seized a weapon they believe may have been used in the attack.
However, Irish officials warned against reading too much into the development and raised concerns about how the suspect, a male Hizbullah supporter, was arrested.
The man is employed as a craftsman in a town close to Al-Aqbieh where Pte Rooney and three other Irish soldiers came under gunfire as they passed through on December 14th.
It is understood the man was held by Hizbullah, an armed group and powerful political party in south Lebanon, for several days before being handed over to the Lebanese Armed Forces investigators as part of a negotiated settlement.
The man’s arrest is the latest of several arrests by authorities and potentially the most significant. Hizbullah officials have told investigators he was one of the men who fired at the Irishmen’s vehicle.
Investigators have also recovered an AK-47-style assault rifle they believe may have been used in the attack during which the Unifil vehicle was hit 27 times.
“Just because Hizbullah say this is the guy, doesn’t mean it’s true,” said one Defence Forces officer with experience of dealing with the group in south Lebanon.
“There’s a huge appetite to reduce tensions and put a lid on this thing. This is one way of doing that,” they said.
“I’d be waiting to see what direction this goes before getting too excited,” said a diplomatic source. “[Hizbullah] calls the shots down there.”
Another official on the ground in Lebanon said Hizbullah was keen to be seen as co-operating with the investigation but that it would not allow the focus to turn on its own members.
A Hizbullah official confirmed a man had been handed over to army investigators. He told The Irish Times the suspect was “a supporter, not a member” of the group.
Immediately after the attack Hizbullah officially denied involvement, calling the killing an “unintentional incident” that took place solely between the town’s residents and Unifil.
The group’s second in command, Sheikh Naim Qassem, repeated the denial on Monday, saying that “what happened with the Unifil was a local incident that has nothing to do with politics, and doesn’t have any political objective”.
Unifil and the Defence Forces, which are conducting their own investigations into the attack, declined to comment on the developments.
Meanwhile, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he hopes to visit Irish troops abroad in the coming year following the attack.
“On the issue in relation to travel abroad, I haven’t got any plans at the moment to travel to Mali, Lebanon or Syria, but I might be able to do that perhaps sometime next year. I did have a chance to meet Pte Rooney’s family and also Pte Kearney’s family.”