US arrest may bring prosecution for murder of Irish soldiers

Thirty-four on, the man eyewitnesses allege is responsible faces possible deportation

Wed, Jul 30, 2014, 08:39

John O’Mahony has no doubt that Mahmoud Bazzi is the man who shot him. The Co Kerry farmer was one of three Irish soldiers abducted while serving with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) on April 18th, 1980.

O’Mahony was shot twice but survived. The other two – privates Derek Smallhorne and Thomas Barrett – did not. They were tortured and executed, allegedly by Bazzi. The men were just a week away from finishing their tours and returning to Ireland.

Smallhorne and Barrett are among 47 Irish soldiers who have been killed serving in the UN peacekeeping force since 1978. Their killings were among the more horrific of Ireland’s history in Lebanon.

Tomorrow Bazzi (71), a former militia with the South Lebanese Army (SLA) in 1980, is scheduled to appear before a United States immigration judge in Detroit, Michigan, on passport violations.

He was arrested on July 15th in nearby Dearborn, a Middle Eastern community where he has worked driving an ice cream van for years.

“I don’t think it is a face that I will ever forget,” said O’Mahony (62) of Bazzi, speaking by phone from his farm in Scartaglin, Co Kerry.

The retired Irish soldier was in a group driving a convoy through an area of south Lebanon controlled by the SLA, a Christian militia group led by the Israeli-backed Major Saad Haddad in 1980.

The militia force controlled the area, fighting the Palestine Liberation Organisation as a buffer to prevent direct attacks on Israel to the south.

The UN peacekeeping force was assigned to keep the warring factions apart.

That day the convoy was told to bring supplies to Maroun al-Ras, on the border with Israel. O’Mahony and particularly Barrett were nervous because 12 days earlier there had been clashes between Haddad’s men and the UN force of Irish and Dutch peacekeepers which had resulted in the death of a militia man and an Irish soldier.

Tensions high

Tensions were running high. A message was broadcast on the Christian radio station Voice of Hope, controlled by Haddad, that the slain man’s family was looking to avenge his death by taking two Irish lives or, failing that, be recompensed to the tune of $10,000. Bazzi was later identified as a relative of the dead militia.

Travelling with the soldiers were Associated Press journalist Steve Hindy, an American, and a photographer working with him, and two military observers, Harry Klein from the US, and Patrick Vincent from France.

Hindy, who along with O’Mahony, is one of only two living eyewitnesses to the events of that day, recalled the party being abducted by “a man dressed in black who was very emotional”. He was shouting: “My brother, my brother. You killed my brother,” Hindy said .

They were brought to a bombed primary school where, in a toilet, they were asked their nationalities.

Hindy said a man, who was later identified as Mahmoud Bazzi, separated the three Irish soldiers from the group and walked them out of the toilet, into a corridor and down a stairway. That’s where the shooting began.

“He fired at me and I was the first hit, and while he was firing at me, the other two made a dash for it,” said O’Mahony.