A military tribunal in Lebanon has formally accused five men of killing an Irish UN peacekeeper in December, local media and news agencies reported.
A senior judicial official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, alleged all five are linked with Lebanese group Hezbollah, The Associated Press news agency reported.
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The indictment followed a half-year probe after an attack on a UN peacekeeping convoy near the town of al-Aqbiya in south Lebanon, a stronghold of Hezbollah. It included evidence from bystanders’ testimonies, as well as audio recordings and video footage from surveillance cameras, the Lebanese official said.
In some of the recordings of the confrontation, the gunmen reportedly could be heard telling the peacekeepers that they are from Hezbollah.
Hezbollah has denied any role in the killing, calling it an “unintentional incident” that took place solely between the town’s residents and UNIFIL, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon. There was no immediate comment from Hezbollah on Thursday.
The shooting resulted in the death of Seán Rooney and seriously wounded Shane Kearney. The wounded peacekeeper was medically evacuated to Ireland. Two other Irish soldiers sustained light injuries.
One of the five men indicted, Mohamad Ayyad, is currently in the custody of Lebanese authorities. The four others facing charges – Ali Khalifeh, Ali Salman, Hussein Salman, and Mustafa Salman – are at large.
The UN peacekeeper vehicle reportedly took a wrong turn through al-Aqbiya on their way from the base in the south to the Beirut airport.
Vehicles and armed men surrounded the peacekeepers as they tried to make their way back to the main road.
Initial reports said angry residents confronted the peacekeepers, but the indictment concludes that the shooting was a targeted attack.
UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti said the indictment was an “important step towards justice”.
“Attacks on men and women serving the cause of peace are serious crimes and can never be tolerated,” Tenenti told the AP. “We look forward to justice for Private Rooney, his injured colleagues, and their families.”
UNIFIL was created to oversee the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon after Israel’s 1978 invasion. The UN expanded its mission following the 2006 war between Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah, allowing peacekeepers to deploy along the Israeli border to help the Lebanese military extend its authority into the country’s south for the first time in decades.
Hezbollah supporters in Lebanon have frequently accused the UN mission of collusion with Israel, while Israel has accused the peacekeepers of turning a blind eye to Hezbollah’s military activities in southern Lebanon.