Lebanese soldiers stand behind a damaged vehicle after a UN peacekeepers convoy came under fire in the Al Aqbiya village, south Lebanon, on Dec. 15, 2022. Image Credit: AP file

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s military tribunal on Thursday charged five men with the killing of an Irish UN peacekeeper in December, a senior judicial official said. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, alleged all five are linked to Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

The indictment followed a half-year probe after an attack on a UN peacekeeping convoy near the town of Al Aqbiya in Lebanon’s south, a stronghold of Hezbollah. The shooting resulted in the death of Pvt. Seán Rooney, 24, of Newtown Cunningham, Ireland, and seriously wounded Pvt. Shane Kearney, 22. The wounded peacekeeper was medically evacuated to Ireland. Two other Irish soldiers sustained light injuries.

The indictment includes 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, and a spokesperson for the group declined to comment on the indictments on Thursday.

Fatal night

One of five indicted, Mohammad Ayyad, is currently in custody of Lebanese authorities. The four others facing charges - Ali Khalifeh, Ali Salman, Hussain Salman, and Mustafa Salman - are at large.

On the fatal night, Rooney and several other Irish soldiers with the peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, UNIFIL, were on their way from their base in the south to the Beirut airport. Two UN vehicles apparently took a detour through Al Aqbiya, which is not part of the area under the peacekeepers’ mandate.

Initial reports said angry residents confronted the peacekeepers, but the indictment concludes that the shooting was a targeted attack. The UN peacekeeper vehicle reportedly took a wrong turn and was surrounded by vehicles and armed men as they tried to make their way back to the main road.

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 the 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 frequently accuse the U.N. mission of collusion with Israel, while Israel has accused the peacekeepers of turning a blind eye to Hezbollah’s military activities in southern Lebanon.