An Irish soldier with the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon was shot and killed and another seriously wounded when unidentified assailants opened fire at a passing convoy late on Wednesday.
Two other Irish soldiers were injured in the incident at the village of Al Aqbieh, southern Lebanon, when the peacekeepers were travelling to Beirut ― but not on a road typically used by Unifil to go to the capital.
Official confirmation over what caused the death of the soldier remains unclear, because the vehicle crashed either during, or following the gunfire. But a Lebanese judicial source later told AFP that the peacekeeper was killed by a bullet to the head when seven projectiles pierced the vehicle.
“Last night, a peacekeeper was killed and three others were injured in the village of Al Aqbieh near Sarafan, which is just outside Unifil’s area of operations and not far from the highway,” said Andrea Tenenti of the UN Peacekeeping Force in Lebanon (Unifil), on Thursday.
The Irish Defence Forces named the soldier who was killed as Private Sean Rooney, 23, from Newtowncunningham in County Donegal, north-west Ireland.
He had joined the Defence Forces in 2019, serving in the 27th Infantry Battalion, based in Dundalk, County Louth, north-east Ireland.
Fellow peacekeeper Private Shane Kearney, 22, is in a serious condition, the military said on Thursday.
Unifil said it has launched an investigation into the incident.
“At the moment, details are sparse and conflicting,” Mr Tenenti said. “But we are looking into the circumstances that led to this incident.”
“This happened just outside our area of operations, we only use these roads to go to Beirut and to the airport and that's what the two vehicles were doing,” he said.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese armed group and political party that has a major presence in Al Aqbieh and in many parts of the country, on Thursday denied its involvement in the death of Pvt Rooney. A senior security official for the group, Wafic Safa, told Reuters the party offered its condolences following the “unintentional incident that took place between the residents of Al Aqbieh and individuals from the Irish unit.”
Media aligned with Hezbollah reported that the attack occurred after a dispute over the convoy's route, which led to gunfire causing the vehicle to crash as it attempted to speed away.
On Thursday morning Lebanese Army soldiers stood near a cordoned off area on one of the main roads leading through the coastal town of Al Aqbieh. Onlookers were prevented from taking photos by the Lebanese Army.
They were accompanied by a handful of Unifil soldiers, some taking pictures perhaps for evidence, and jeeps marked as Military Police. A group of locals observed as a Lebanese Army truck sought to wrench the beaten-up Unifil vehicle from the ground.
With smashed windows and lying on its left side, the vehicle was eventually pulled on to four wheels.
It is not known how the Unifil vehicle ended up in Al Aqbieh, a large village located nearby but not directly on the highway linking southern Lebanon with Beirut. The vehicle was lying on its side on a small side street leading off one of Al Aqbieh’s main roads.
According to the Irish Defence Forces, “a convoy of two armoured utility vehicles carrying eight personnel travelling to Beirut came under small arms fire”.
The vehicles were “surrounded by a hostile mob” while conducting routine transportation after shots were fired, Irish Minister for Defence Simon Coveney said.
He said the families of the soldiers involved had been informed overnight, adding that it was the first Irish death on a peacekeeping mission for about two decades.
“Four personnel were taken to Raee Hospital, near Sidon, as a result of the incident. One soldier was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital and another has undergone surgery and is in a serious condition,” the Irish forces said.
Two other soldiers are being treated for minor injuries. A medical officer from the 121st Infantry Battalion is with the soldiers at the hospital.
Irish President Michael Higgins expressed his “deepest sorrow” over the death.
“As a people, we take great pride in our unbroken record of peacekeeping with the United Nations,” he said.
“However, we must never forget the dangers that come with this work or how the members of our Defence Forces serving on peacekeeping missions abroad risk their lives every day in order to build and maintain peace in conflict zones across the world.”
Mr Coveney, who is in New York for a UN Security Council meeting, said he would meet Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Thursday to discuss the incident.
He said he had learnt of the “serious incident” with a “profound sadness and a deep sense of shock”.
“At this time I want to express, on behalf of everyone in Ireland, our utmost sorrow at the loss of a young man serving his country and the United Nations overseas,” said Mr Coveney. “To his family I want to say sorry for their heartbreak and loss.”
He said he would return to Ireland this evening “to discuss the loss of our peacekeeper and the full investigation that must now follow”.
The 121st Infantry Battalion, made up of 333 Irish soldiers, was deployed to south Lebanon last month. They are part of a unit also containing Maltese, Polish and Hungarian personnel.
About 13,000 UN peacekeepers are stationed in Lebanon, where the interim force has managed a ceasefire with Israel.
More than 300 soldiers serving with Unifil have lost their lives since 1978. Forty-eight of those were Irish.
The last time peacekeepers were killed in an attack was when three Colombian and three Spanish soldiers in the international force were hit by a bomb blast between Marjayoun and Khaim in southern Lebanon in June 2007.
In 2011, six Italian soldiers were injured when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb near Sidon.