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Hezbollah ‘supporter’ detained in probe of UN peacekeeper killing

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A Hezbollah spokesperson says the detained suspect is a supporter of the group but not a member.

The Lebanese army has detained a suspect in the recent killing of an Irish United Nations peacekeeper in a move coordinated with the powerful armed group Hezbollah over the weekend, two security sources and a Hezbollah spokesperson said.

The man is a supporter of the Iran-backed armed group and heavyweight political party, but not a member of the group, a Hezbollah spokesperson told the Reuters news agency on Monday.

The security sources said the man was suspected of firing shots at a United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) vehicle that was travelling through south Lebanon on December 15.

Private Sean Rooney, aged 23, was killed and three others injured – one in critical condition – on December 14 when their UNIFIL vehicle was attacked near the village of al-Aqbiya in the country’s south.

It was the first fatal attack on UN peacekeepers in Lebanon since 2015.

“The main shooter has been arrested by security forces after Hezbollah handed him over hours ago,” a security official said, declining to be identified because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

Hezbollah has officially denied involvement in the incident, calling the killing an “unintentional incident” that took place solely between the town’s residents and UNIFIL.

The two-vehicle convoy was carrying eight personnel and was travelling to Beirut as two of the members were returning to Ireland on compassionate leave, Irish Defence Forces Chief of Staff Seán Clancy said. The remaining four personnel from the other vehicle were not injured.

Witnesses said villagers in the al-Aqbiya area blocked Rooney’s vehicle after it took a road along the Mediterranean coast not normally used by UNIFIL.

Al-Aqbiya is just outside UNIFIL’s area of operations, the force has said.

The three passengers were injured when the vehicle hit a pylon and overturned.

On December 16, Ireland’s then-foreign and defence minister Simon Coveney told Irish state broadcaster RTE that he did not accept Hezbollah’s assurances that it had no involvement.

“We don’t accept any assurances until we have a full investigation concluded to establish the full truth,” he said.

Peacekeeping forces
UNIFIL has operated in Lebanon since 1978 to maintain peace along its border with Israel. It was expanded after a UN resolution that halted the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war in southern Lebanon.

Over the years, there have been a number of incidents between Hezbollah supporters and UN peacekeepers but they have rarely escalated.

UNIFIL has urged Beirut to ensure a swift investigation into the first violent death of one of its peacekeepers in nearly eight years.

The force was set up to monitor the withdrawal of Israeli forces after they invaded Lebanon in reprisal for a Palestinian attack.

Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000, but six years later was involved in a devastating war against Hezbollah and its allies.

Lebanon and Israel remain technically at war, although they resolved a longtime maritime border dispute in October.

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