Lebanon military court accuses 5 over killing of UN peacekeeper

The UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon says the indictment is an “important step towards justice.”

A military tribunal in Lebanon has formally charged five men with killing an Irish UN peacekeeper in December, local media and news agencies reported.

A senior judicial official, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with regulations, claimed all five are linked to the Lebanese group Hezbollah, the Associated Press news agency reported.

The indictment followed a six-month investigation into an attack on a UN peace convoy near the southern Lebanon town of al-Aqbiya, a Hezbollah stronghold. It contained evidence of bystander testimony, as well as audio recordings and video footage from surveillance cameras, the Lebanese official said.

In some footage of the confrontation, the gunmen reportedly could be heard telling peacekeepers that they are from Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has denied any role in the killing, calling it an “accidental incident” that took place solely between the residents of the city and UNIFIL, the UN interim force in Lebanon. There was no direct comment from Hezbollah on Thursday.

UNIFIL Commander Major General Aroldo Lázaro Sáenz of Spain customizes a wreath for the casket draped by Irish UN Peacekeeper Sean Rooney’s United Nations flag [File: Hussein Malla/AP Photo]

The shooting resulted in the death of Seán Rooney and seriously injured Shane Kearney. The injured peacekeeper was medically evacuated to Ireland. Two other Irish soldiers suffered minor injuries.

One of the five men charged, Mohamad Ayyad, is currently in the custody of Lebanese authorities. The four others charged – 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 its way from the base in the south to Beirut airport.

Vehicles and armed men surrounded the peacekeepers as they attempted to return to the main road.

According to initial reports, angry residents confronted the peacekeepers, but the indictment concludes that the shooting was a targeted attack.

UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti said the indictment was an “important step towards justice”.

“Attacks against men and women who serve peace are serious crimes and can never be tolerated,” Tenenti told the AP. “We look forward to justice for Private Rooney, his wounded colleagues and their families.”

UNIFIL was established to oversee the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon after Israel’s 1978 invasion. The UN expanded its mission after the 2006 war between Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah, allowing peacekeepers along the Israeli border could be used to help the Lebanese army extend its authority to the south of the country for the first time in decades.

Hezbollah supporters in Lebanon have often accused the UN mission of colluding with Israel, while Israel has accused peacekeepers of turning a blind eye to Hezbollah’s military activities in southern Lebanon.