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SOUTH LEBANON

Hezbollah denies involvement in killing of Irish UNIFIL soldier

The peacekeeper was killed by a bullet to the head, a Lebanese judicial source told AFP on Thursday.

Lebanese soldiers check the site where a UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL convoy came under small arms fire, in the village of al-Aaqbiya in south Lebanon, on December 15, 2022. (Credit: Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP)

BEIRUT — A senior Hezbollah official on Thursday denied the party's involved in an "unintentional incident" that took place the previous night in which an Irish soldier was killed and three others were injured on a UN peacekeeping mission in South Lebanon.

Wafiq Safa told Reuters his party offered its condolences "after the unintentional incident that took place between the residents of al-Aaqbiya and individuals from the Irish unit," and urged the party not be "inserted" into the incident.

Earlier today Hezbollah MP Ali Fayad said on his way out of Parliament after a presidential election session that "everyone has an interest in the stability of the south."

UN peacekeepers check the site a UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL convoy came under small arms fire, in the village of al-Aaqbiya in south Lebanon, on December 15, 2022. (Credit: Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP)

UNIFIL's spokesperson Andrea Tenenti told L'Orient Today on Thursday morning that an Irish soldier serving with the UN peacekeeping force in South Lebanon was killed on Wednesday night while three other soldiers were injured in an "incident" in the village of al-Aaqbiya outside UNIFIL’s area of operations in south Lebanon.

According to the Irish Defense Forces, a convoy of two armored utility vehicles carrying eight personnel traveling to Beirut came under "small arms fire."

"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 army said in its statement following the incident.

"The other two soldiers are being treated for minor injuries. The remaining four personnel from the convoy were not injured and are safe and accounted for," the statement added.

The Irish peacekeeper died from a bullet to the head when seven projectiles pierced his vehicle, a Lebanese judicial source told AFP on Thursday afternoon. Three other peacekeepers in the same vehicle were injured when they hit a pylon and overturned late Wednesday night in a village in the Hezbollah-dominated south of Lebanon, the source said.

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Bassam Jaafar, the mokhtar (a local official responsible for records) of the village in which the incident took place, told L'Orient Today that residents tried to stop the UNIFIL vehicle because, according to him, peacekeepers' convoys are "not allowed in the village but only on main routes."

Jaafar said that the UNIFIL vehicle attempted to escape the locals barring its way and in the process hit and injured one of the village's residents. Jaafar added that shots were then fired but said the origin of these remains unknown. "Let the security forces investigate the matter," the mokhtar said.

An AFP photographer reported seeing a UNIFIL vehicle in the village of al-Aaqbiya hit a store on a road leading to the northern city of Saida, some 40km south of Beirut.

According to witnesses interviewed by AFP, the car was intercepted by locals while driving along a coastal road not usually used by peacekeepers.

The driver appeared to have lost control of the vehicle while trying to flee the area, they said. Witnesses reported hearing gunfire.

UNIFIL forces were deployed at the scene on Thursday morning, along with Lebanese Army soldiers who confiscated surveillance cameras, according to AFP.

Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said he was "deeply shocked and very saddened" by the loss of life.

Tenenti meanwhile said in a statement, "We offer our deepest condolences to the friends, family and colleagues of the peacekeeper who died. We are hopeful for a full and fast recovery for those injured."

"At the moment, details are sparse and conflicting. We are coordinating with the Lebanese Armed Forces, and have launched an investigation to determine exactly what happened," Tenenti added.

Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defense Simon Coveney referred to a "serious incident" without providing further details, according to AFP.

Before a meeting of the Security Council at the UN, Coveney took the floor to announce that the Irish soldier died after a "crowd attacked the [UNIFIL] vehicle." He added that the victim was 23 years old.

Three investigations will be conducted on this incident, Coveney promised: one by Ireland, one by the United Nations and a third by Lebanon.

Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister and Defense Minister assured Coveney that the Lebanese authorities "will cooperate fully" with the Irish investigation.

'Violence against peacekeepers is unconscionable'

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was "deeply saddened" by the peacekeeper's death, his spokesperson said.

He called for a "swift investigation by relevant authorities to determine the facts related to the incident and the need for accountability."

The United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon Joanna Wronecka tweeted: "Deeply saddened by the death of UNIFIL Irish peacekeeper. Heartfelt condolences to his family, to Aroldo Lazaro and all peacekeepers in south Lebanon. Wishing the injured a speedy recovery. A quick and thorough investigation to determine the facts of this tragic incident is crucial."

The United States also condemned "in the strongest terms the violent attack on UNIFIL peacekeepers," according to a statement published by the embassy in Beirut

"Violence against peacekeepers is unconscionable, puts Lebanese civilians at risk, and jeopardizes stability in southern Lebanon," the text added.

Washington "calls upon the Lebanese government to urgently investigate this attack, hold those responsible accountable, and prevent such attacks from occurring in the future."

France, which has a contingent in UNIFIL, condemned the attack "in the strongest terms." It called for calm and for "an investigation without delay or hindrance so that the perpetrators of this attack can be brought to justice," according to Anne-Claire Legendre, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  

Mikati contacts heads of army and UNIFIL

Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati expressed his "deep sorrow" over the incident, offering his condolences on the death of the Irish peacekeeper as well as his wishes for the recovery of the injured. In a statement issued by the Grand Serail, Mikati affirmed "the need for the competent authorities to carry out the necessary investigations to understand the circumstances of the incident and prevent it from happening again."

Mikati also contacted Commander-in-Chief of the Lebanese Army Joseph Aoun as well as the Commander-in-Chief of UNIFIL, Maj. Gen. Aroldo Lázaro Sáenz, to inquire about the circumstances of the incident. He also sent his condolences to Irish President Michael Higgins and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

For its part, the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs "strongly condemned the distressing incident," offering its condolences "to Ireland, its government and its people." The ministry recalled the importance of the role of the UNIFIL in "protecting security in South Lebanon."

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri also called the head of UNIFIL to express his condolences and "wished recovery to the injured," Berri's office said in a statement.

Attacks on UNIFIL soldiers are not unusual during the passage of convoys in South Lebanon, a region considered a Hezbollah stronghold; however, they rarely result in fatalities. This is the first time a peacekeeper has been killed in violence in Lebanon since January 2015. At that time, a Spanish soldier was killed by Israeli army fire during an escalation of violence on the border between Israel and Hezbollah.

Present in Lebanon since 1978, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, composed of nearly 10,000 soldiers, is deployed in the south of the country to act as a buffer between Israel and Lebanon, two countries that remain technically in a state of war after various conflicts.

On Aug. 31, the UN Security Council renewed UNIFIL's mandate for one year, but with a slight change in wording. UNIFIL, which regularly coordinates its patrols and movements in its area of operations with the Lebanese Army, is now "authorized to conduct its operations independently."

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah condemned the change in the peacekeepers' mandate as a "violation of Lebanese sovereignty."

BEIRUT — A senior Hezbollah official on Thursday denied the party's involved in an "unintentional incident" that took place the previous night in which an Irish soldier was killed and three others were injured on a UN peacekeeping mission in South Lebanon.Wafiq Safa told Reuters his party offered its condolences "after the unintentional incident that took place between the...