Private Sean Rooney, 23, was killed and three others injured on Dec. 14 when their UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) vehicle was attacked near the village of Al-Aqbiya in the country’s south, a Hezbollah stronghold.
The hypothesis that the attack was an isolated incident seems to be increasingly undermined. As the investigation into what happened progresses, fingers seem to point at Hezbollah.
The Iran-backed party, which is influential in the area and maintains rocky relations with the UN force, was quick to deny any involvement in the incident.
But according to sources close to the investigation who spoke to L'Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity, two Hezbollah officials were involved in the attack.
A few days after the incident, Hezbollah handed over one suspect to the authorities.
“The party is cooperating with the investigation conducted by the Lebanese military intelligence,” a Lebanese security official told AFP on Sunday, adding that “preliminary investigations are almost complete.”
What we know:
The Irish peacekeeper was shot in the head after an alleged scuffle with the villagers in the town of al-Aqabiya.
A source close to the investigation told L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity that seven bullets were shot at the UNIFIL convoy that was headed to Beirut, via an unusual route for the UN force.
A Cherokee Jeep reportedly followed the four UNIFIL vehicles from the village of Saksakieh to the entrance of al-Aqaibya, where they decided to split into two groups, one taking an inside road in the town and the highway.
According to the locals interviewed by army intelligence, they did not know the source of the shots came from that killed the young soldier and wounded three others.
However, according to L’Orient-Le Jour sources close to the investigation, two Hezbollah officials, M.M. and A.Z., were responsible for the attack but did not have the intention to cause casualties.
“Hezbollah has handed over one of its members to the Lebanese authorities and four other individuals are wanted for their involvement in the incident,” one of the sources told L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity.
“These are people close to the party, but are not executives,” the source explained. A senior Hezbollah official confirmed this information to L'Orient-Le Jour.
“Our cooperation with the Lebanese army is unlimited. If they want to arrest or interrogate one of us, we will not prevent them,” the Hezbollah source told L’Orient-Le Jour, without disclosing the identity of the arrested suspect.
While this information seems to point the finger at Hezbollah, favoring the hypothesis of a message from the party to the international community, the pro-Iranian party remains on the defensive.
“The fact that people close to the party are accused does not mean that the incident was premeditated by Hezbollah,” the party official said.
“It is an accident, like when UNIFIL vehicles run over and kill citizens in the South, in absolute silence. UNIFIL is aware of this, and therefore refrains from using inflammatory rhetoric,” the source added.
While the UN force called for the immediate arrest of those responsible for the death of the young peacekeeper, it recalled its commitment to “cooperation with Lebanon” and “maintaining peace at the border.”
UNIFIL was created in 1978 as a buffer between Lebanon and Israel. Since the July 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, the international force has maintained a significant presence with an average of over 11,000 peacekeepers in southern Lebanon.
This year’s renewal of UNIFIL’s mandate has caused a stir in Lebanon, with Hezbollah and its allies denouncing changes to the UN’s prerogatives in the south that give the peacekeeping force greater freedom of movement.
UNIFIL said it continues to coordinate its movements with the Lebanese army, even when UN troops are not physically accompanied by the military.
With the al-Aqabiya incident, the most serious involving UNIFIL in several years, messages of support for the UN force have abounded.
Lebanese army chief Gen. Joseph Aoun on Tuesday visited Irish peacekeepers at one of UNIFIL’s bases.
The army chief praised “the sacrifices of the UNIFIL soldiers who work closely with the Lebanese army to maintain peace and stability in the South,” reaffirming “the continued cooperation between the Lebanese army and UNIFIL, an essential partner for the implementation of the UN [Resolution] 1701,” which was aimed at ending the 2006 war.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Wednesday received the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, whose country is a contributor to the UN force.
Mikati reaffirmed “Lebanon’s commitment to respect all the provisions of Resolution 1701 and to work to implement them,” stressing that “all security, military, and judicial authorities have not hesitated and will not hesitate, even for a moment, to do what it takes to know the identity of the shooters and bring them to justice.”
Sanchez also expressed “his country’s willingness to support the work of UNIFIL in South Lebanon,” stressing the European countries’ commitment to stability in the border area.
Last week, it was the Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Affairs, Antonio Tajani, who visited Lebanon in support of UNIFIL, which is composed, among others, of about 1,100 Italian soldiers.