An Irish soldier on a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Lebanon has been shot and killed and a second is in critical condition after a “hostile” crowd surrounded their armoured vehicle, Ireland’s defence minister has said.
The soldiers, part of the UN Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL), were on what Simon Coveney, who is also Ireland’s foreign minister, said on Thursday was a standard run from UNIFIL’s area of operations in south Lebanon to Beirut when the incident happened in the Sarafand area late on Wednesday.
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“The two armoured vehicles effectively got separated. One of them got surrounded by a hostile mob, I think that’s the only way you could describe them, and shots were fired. Unfortunately, one of our peacekeepers was killed,” Coveney told Irish national broadcaster RTE.
“This was not expected, yes there has been some tension on the ground between Hezbollah forces and UNIFIL in recent months but nothing like this.”
The convoy carrying eight personnel was travelling to Beirut as two of the members were returning to Ireland on compassionate leave following the death of family members, Irish Defence Forces Chief of Staff Seán Clancy told RTE.
The second soldier remains in critical condition in a UN-managed hospital after undergoing surgery, Clancy said.
The two other soldiers in the vehicle are being treated for minor injuries while the remaining four personnel from the other vehicle were not injured.
UNIFIL said it was coordinating with the Lebanese armed forces and had launched an investigation.
“At the moment, details are sparse and conflicting,” it said in a statement.
Reporting from Sarafand, Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr said that some sources had told her that the vehicle had gotten lost.
“This is not considered to be their normal route; the main highway is adjacent to this road,” said Khodr. “There was a crowd in the street, it was just after the World Cup match. Now what happened after that … Some will say that UN peacekeepers were trying to leave the area, [then] they hit somebody. Others say that people from this area opened fire at the vehicles, resulting in one of the vehicles overturning.”
“No one has yet called this an attack or a deliberate attack,” Khodr added. “But at the same time, it will not be the first time UNFIL convoy gets involved in some sort of incident with the local population in southern Lebanon. In recent months, we have seen minor incidents, skirmishes between the people and the UN forces.”
Lebanon’s caretaker premier Najib Mikati expressed his deep regret over the incident and called for an investigation, urging all parties to “show wisdom and patience”.
UN chief Antonio Guterres also called for an investigation, according to his spokesman.
Guterres is “deeply saddened” by the death of the UNIFIL peacekeeper, Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
“He urges a swift investigation by relevant authorities to determine the facts related to the incident and the need for accountability,” he said.
The United States also urged the Lebanese government to “urgently investigate this attack”, and condemned the attack in a statement released by US embassy in Lebanon.
“Violence against peacekeepers is unconscionable, puts Lebanese civilians at risk, and jeopardises stability in southern Lebanon,” the statement read.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese army offered its condolences but did not give additional details on the incident.
A senior Hezbollah official said an “unintentional incident” had led to the death of an Irish soldier on a UN peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon, saying the armed group was not involved.
Wafiq Safa told Reuters his party offered its condolences “after the unintentional incident that took place between the residents of al-Aqbieh and individuals from the Irish unit,” and urged that the party not be “inserted” into the incident.
Coveney, in New York for a UN Security Council meeting, said he will meet Guterres later on Thursday to discuss the incident.
Irish peacekeepers have been in Lebanon since 1978 and it is the first Irish death there in 20 years, Coveney said.
“We’re all very shocked and deeply saddened, it is a reminder to us of the extraordinary sacrifices that our peacekeepers make on a constant basis,” Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin told reporters in Brussels.