Three investigations underway to establish facts of attack as security forces seek out gunmen
News website ‘Naharnet.com’ quoted a Lebanese judicial source as stating: “Evidence suggests the involvement of two shooters in the deadly attack” in the village of al-Aqbiyeh on Wednesday night.
They further quoted the judicial source as stating: “Security forces are now seeking the arrest of the two suspects.”
A spokesperson for the Irish Defence Forces declined to comment on the claims yesterday – saying three separate investigations involving UN, Lebanese and Irish personnel are underway to establish the facts of what occurred.
The spokesperson also said the Defence Forces had positioned an Air Corps CASA aircraft in Malta yesterday as a contingency for the possible repatriation of injured trooper Shane Kearney (22), who was seriously injured in the attack.
Separately, the Defence Forces confirmed the two soldiers who were on the convoy with Private Rooney and Private Kearney and who received minor injuries had been released from hospital and were back safely in UNP 2-45 (Irish Camp Shamrock).
Private Rooney (24), who was from Dundalk, was shot dead while serving with the 121st Infantry Battalion on a UN peacekeeping mission on Wednesday night.
He was one of four soldiers carrying out a routine journey from the Unifil area of operations to Beirut Airport – from where two soldiers who had suffered recent bereavements were due to fly home.
Prior to the attack, their Armoured Utility Vehicle (AUV) had become separated from the lead vehicle in the convoy and left the approved route.
Witnesses said villagers in the al-Aqbiyeh area, a Hezbollah stronghold, blocked the Irish peacekeeper’s vehicle before it came under fire.
Video of the incident appears to show the vehicle continuing to take fire after its driver manoeuvred it past the crowd and picked up speed as he attempted to get his colleagues to safety.
Another video showed the vehicle overturned after apparently colliding with the steel shutters of a building.
A Lebanese judicial source told AFP that Private Rooney was killed after sustaining a bullet wound to the head when seven projectiles pierced the vehicle.
Local media, quoting the town’s mayor Bassam Jaafar, said the vehicle hit and injured a resident in the process.
No independent verification has been offered for this claim.
Over the years there have been a number of incidents between Hezbollah supporters and the UN force in border areas loyal to the armed group.
But Wafiq Safa, security chief for Hezbollah, who have denied involvement, told Lebanon’s LBCI television that the incident was “unintentional” and called for investigators to be given time to establish the facts.
Minister for Defence Simon Coveney has said he does not accept this assurance and would await the outcome of the investigations.
An eight-member multi-disciplinary team from the Irish Defence Forces was expected to arrive in Beirut yesterday to assist in the investigation into Private Rooney’s death.
Four members of the Critical Incident Response Team are from Personnel Support Services and will offer counselling to those deployed on the mission.
Three military police investigators and a legal officer are understood to have made up the rest of the eight-member team.
Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister Najib Mikati said “the investigation continues in order to determine the circumstances of the incident.”
The Lebanese premier said it was “important” to prevent similar attacks and promised “those who will be proven guilty will be punished.”
One aspect of the Defence Forces investigation will be to determine how and why Private Rooney’s vehicle became separated from the second Armoured Utility Vehicle with which it was travelling in convoy and deviated from the main route.
Speaking with RTÉ earlier this week, Defence Forces Press Officer Commandant Gemma Fagan said that there are “still pieces of the puzzle missing.’
“Orders would have been given prior to the vehicles leaving the camp,” she said, “and a patrol route would have been decided on.”
When the two vehicles reached Al-Aqbiya, they became separated in “some shape or form”, she said.
Private Rooney’s AUV experienced a “denial of freedom of movement” where it was blocked front and rear by the group and situation escalated to small-arms fire.
Commandant Fagan described the situation as having become “volatile” and said it had “escalated quite quickly.”
Emergency responders transported all four personnel in the vehicle to Raee Hospital near the city of Sidon where Private Rooney was subsequently pronounced dead.
It’s understood Private Kearney underwent surgery for his injuries while their colleagues were treated for minor injuries.
A second aspect of the investigation will examine if the attackers were organised or incited by a third party.
Speaking in Brussels on Friday, in one of his final public addresses as Taoiseach, Micheál Martin warned the investigation to establish the fact of what occurred will be “difficult” but he said “we are determined to get to the truth.”
“The environment is difficult. The environment is challenging.
“And as we know, now, with the terrible cost, it’s clearly a tense situation.
“These investigations have to be very comprehensive. We are determined to get the truth,” he added.
He said Ireland had a “proud and distinguished” service in Lebanon stretching back over many decades.
“These are peacekeepers. We owe it to them and to their families to get to the truth. It is just shocking that a Unifil peacekeeping group would be attacked in the manner that they were attacked. And this is something we’re determined to get to the bottom of,” he added.