Body of Irish peacekeeper killed in south Lebanon attack arrives home

Memorial for Private Sean Rooney held in Beirut airport before repatriation

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The body of an Irish peacekeeper, killed in southern Lebanon last week when a Unifil vehicle was attacked, has arrived back in Ireland.

It came after a memorial had been held at Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport for Pvt Sean Rooney, 23. He was the first Unifil member to die in a violent incident since 2015, when his convoy passed through the village of Al Aqbiya en route to Beirut.

Another three peacekeepers were injured in the incident when their vehicle overturned. One of the wounded, Pvt Shane Kearney, remains in a serious condition in hospital.

The soldiers were part of 121st Infantry Battalion, comprising 333 Irish troops, which was deployed in November to south Lebanon.

Pvt Rooney’s body arrived at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel, on the outskirts of Dublin on Monday morning ahead of being reunited with his family.

“Sean Rooney made the hardest sacrifice a soldier can do: giving his life while serving lasting peace in Lebanon,” Unifil commander Maj Gen Aroldo Lazaro said at a ceremony attended by peacekeepers and the Lebanese Army.

The coffin of Pvt Rooney, draped in Irish and UN flags, was put on a military plane to be sent to Ireland.

Maj Gen Pierre Saab, representing Lebanese Army commander Gen Joseph Aoun, posthumously awarded Pvt Rooney the War Medal, the Wounded Medal, and the Appreciation Medal Bronze Degree from the Lebanese Armed Forces.

“We shall always keep in mind our fallen comrades in arms, as they represent an example of an unwavering commitment to Unifil and this country,” said Maj Gen Lazaro.

Irish UN peacekeepers carry the coffin, draped by their country flag, of Pvt Sean Rooney. AP Photo

Three investigations are under way: one led by the UN, another by the Irish Defence Forces and a third by the Lebanese government.

“I would have confidence in those investigations to find out exactly what happened, why an Irish soldier lost his life and another was severely injured," Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said.

“It’s important that we do that. It’s also important that we avoid any speculation, I think, at this point until those investigations are done.

“But the main thing, I think, this week really is to stand with and express our condolences to Private Rooney’s family, his friends and colleagues because it’s been a long time since we lost a soldier in combat in Lebanon. But it does remind us how important that mission is.”

The exact circumstances surrounding the widely condemned attack remain murky and the UN has demanded a speedy investigation.

But it appears two peacekeeper vehicles took a detour via Al Aqbiya — just outside the area of Unifil operations — and were surrounded by angry locals.

A Lebanese judicial source told AFP the driver was killed by a bullet to the head, one of seven that hit the vehicle.

Iran-backed armed group and political party Hezbollah has a significant presence in southern Lebanon, but has denied any involvement in the attack.

About 13,000 UN peacekeepers are stationed in Lebanon, where the interim force has overseen a ceasefire with Israel.

More than 300 soldiers serving with Unifil have lost their lives since 1978. Forty-eight of those were Irish.

Updated: December 19, 2022, 11:11 AM
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