An Irish peacekeeper has died in south Lebanon after a vehicle carrying four soldiers was attacked on Wednesday night.
The soldier was named by the Defence Forces as Pte Seán Rooney, who had links to Dundalk, Co Louth, and Newtowncunningham, Co Donegal. The 24-year-old had been in the Army for almost four years and was based out of the 27th Infantry Battalion in Dundalk. Pte Rooney’s father also served in the Defence Forces and died in service several years ago. It is understood two of Pte Rooney’s uncles are also members of the Defence Forces.
The fatal incident happened in Al-Aqbieh, just outside the UN-affiliated group’s area of operations, when a vehicle carrying four personnel was stopped by locals and surrounded at around 11.15pm local time (9.15pm Irish time).
It and another armoured SUV became separated while travelling on an “administrative run” from the Irish Unifil base to Beirut. The convoy was bringing two soldiers to the airport so they could return to Ireland on compassionate leave due to bereavements. The two-and-a-half hour drive north along the coast is typically considered safe and undertaken regularly by Defence Forces personnel.
The news agency AFP reported that an Irish peacekeeper had died from a bullet wound to the head after seven projectiles pierced the vehicle in which he was travelling, citing Lebanese judicial sources.
The UN Security Council, which Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney is attending, held a minutes silence this afternoon for Pte Rooney and all other peacekeepers killed in UN service.
One vehicle, which had UN markings, entered Al-Aqbieh village, an area controlled by militants Hizbullah. It encountered a group of locals and came under small-arms fire. The vehicle attempted to escape and appears to have overturned while trying to do so.
A second Irish soldier required surgery after the incident and was said to be in a stable but critical condition in a UN-controlled hospital in Hamud on Thursday. Two other colleagues travelling in the vehicle suffered minor injuries. The four soldiers travelling in the second vehicle were not injured and have been accounted for, the Defence Forces said.
Hizbullah, which has objected to the scope of the UN mission’s activities in recent months, denied responsibility for what it described as an “unintentional incident”.
One of those injured was Trooper Shane Kearney (22) from Killeagh, Co Cork. He joined the Defence Forces in October 2018 and his home unit is the 1st Cavalry Squadron in Collins Barracks, Cork. Killeagh GAA club, of which Trooper Kearney is a member, said a service would be taking place on Thursday night to pray for those affected by the incident.
Minister for Defence Simon Coveney told RTÉ Radio the vehicle was surrounded and attacked by a “hostile mob”. He extended his sympathies to the families of those affected, who were informed of the news overnight.
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First death in 20 years
The soldiers are in Lebanon as part of a UN peacekeeping mission called Unifil (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon). Tensions have been high in recent months between Unifil and local armed groups amid increasing instability in the country.
It is the first death of a Defence Forces member in combat in 23 years and the first on a peacekeeping mission since 2003. Several investigations are to be undertaken following the attack, including by the Defence Forces, the UN and local police.
Since the 1970s, Irish soldiers have served as UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon. The 121st Infantry Battalion, comprising 333 Irish soldiers, deployed to the area in November under the Unifil mission. They are part of a wider battalion involving Irish, Maltese, Polish and Hungarian personnel.
In May, Taoiseach Micheál Martin visited Lebanon to pay tribute to the 47 Irish soldiers who had died while serving on peacekeeping missions in the south of the country over the years.
Defence Forces Chief of Staff Lt Gen Seán Clancy said the organisation was “deeply shocked and saddened by the news of this tragic event and the loss of one of our peacekeepers”.
“Our thoughts are with his family, his friends and his fellow peacekeepers from the 121st Infantry Battalion. Our thoughts are also with those who were injured last night and their families and friends,” he said. “Our focus now is to ensure the safety and continued support for all our personnel deployed in Lebanon.”
He said serving one’s country came with an inherent risk and that while it had been some 20 years since the last Irish fatality on a peacekeeping mission, the latest had come too soon.
[ Irish peacekeeping future: More specialised, complex and dangerous ]
In a statement, Unifil said details of what happened were “sparse and conflicting” and that it was co-ordinating with the Lebanese armed forces in an attempt to “determine exactly what happened”.
A senior Hizbullah official said an “unintentional incident” had led to the death of the Irish soldier and that the armed group was not involved. Wafiq Safa told Reuters that his party offered its condolences “after the unintentional incident that took place between the residents of al-Aqbieh and individuals from the Irish unit”. He urged that his party not be “inserted” into the incident.
Unifil has a mandate to operate independently in its area of operations in south Lebanon, but patrols are usually conducted with members of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).
In response to disinformation spread by Hizbullah that Unifil cannot operate in south Lebanon without an LAF escort, a UN resolution in August reaffirmed that Unifil “does not require prior authorisation or permission” to undertake its mandated tasks. The resolution said Unifil is “authorised to conduct its operation independently, condemns in the strongest terms all attempts to deny access or restrict the freedom of movement” of its personnel and any attacks on and acts of harassment, intimidation and disinformation against Unifil.
Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah criticised the wording of the resolution in September, calling it “a trap that the Israelis have set for Lebanon over many years” and “a violation of Lebanese sovereignty”.
Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati expressed his “deep sorrow” over the incident and offered his condolences.
Mr Mikati also cabled President Higgins and UN secretary general Antonio Guterres to express solidarity.
Mr Coveney said he would return to Ireland this evening after speaking to Mr Guterres about the incident and “the full investigation that must now follow”.
Tributes have been paid to the deceased man and his injured colleague by the President, Taoiseach and other political leaders.
Michael D Higgins said he learned of the news “with the deepest sorrow” while Mr Martin described it as “a reminder to us of the extraordinary sacrifice that our peacekeepers make”.
Gerard Guinan, general secretary of Defence Forces representative association Pdforra, told RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne show that every resource will be made available to the soldiers and families affected. He said the military community was in mourning “for one of our own”.
The community in Killeagh, East Cork have been rallying around the family of Shane Kearney since news broke of the attack. Killeagh Parish Priest, Fr Tim Hazelwood said the community was offering every support it can to Pt Kearney’s family, his parents, Paudie and Phil, and his younger sister, Amy. A prayer service has been organised for 7.30pm in the local parish church.
“It’s terrible news and people here just want to support the family so we’ve organised this prayer service – Shane and his family would be well known and well respected – Shane played with the Junior Hurlers, he’s a tidy forward and his father, Paudie, is a well-known referee in East Cork.
“People were shocked when the news broke so we just want to show the family that our thoughts and prayers are with them - what we heard is that he was supposed to be coming home for some family funeral and they were on their way to Beirut Airport when this happened,” the priest said.
Fr Hazelwood said that Pt Kearney went to St Colman’s Community College in Midleton and played hurling with them before he joined the Defence Forces and this was his second overseas tour on peacekeeping duties with the United Nations.
“Paudie is caretaker at the local community hall and on the community council so the family are steeped in Killeagh at every level. We’re all thinking and praying for them here today and I expect people will turn out in their droves tonight to support them.”