BEIRUT — A military judge has accused five members of the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group, only one of whom is in custody, of killing an Irish United Nations peacekeeper in December last year, a judicial official told AFP Thursday.
Private Sean Rooney, 23, was killed and three others were injured on December 14 when their UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) vehicle was attacked near the village of Al-Aqbiya, a Hezbollah stronghold in the south of the Mediterranean country.
Fadi Sawan, the investigating judge in the military tribunal for the case, issued a 30-page indictment accusing five Hezbollah members of “forming a group of malefactors to commit a crime,” the official said, requesting anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
Mohammad Ayyad, in custody after Hezbollah handed him over to the army in December, is accused along with four other members of the group of “intentional homicide,” the official said.
Under Lebanese law, such crimes are punishable by death, he said, adding that Sawan had referred them to military court and shared the indictment with the UNIFIL.
Footage from surveillance cameras near the scene of the incident “clearly shows the patrol being attacked by armed men from all sides,” the document read.
“Some of them could be heard saying ‘we are Hezbollah’ and using walkie-talkies to communicate,” the indictment added.
Hezbollah has repeatedly denied involvement in the incident, and its security chief Wafic Safa has described the killing as “unintentional.”
In January, Lebanon charged seven people, including Ayyad, for participating in the attack.
Ayyad was charged at the time “with killing the Irish soldier and attempting to kill his three comrades by shooting them with a machine gun,” an official had told AFP.
Lebanon had also charged six fugitives “for uttering threats with an illegal weapon, destroying the UNIFIL vehicle and intimidating its passengers.”
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 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 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.
There have been incidents in the past between Hezbollah supporters and UNIFIL patrols, but they have rarely escalated.