NAQURA, Lebanon — The United Nations peacekeeping force in south Lebanon urged Beirut on Friday to ensure a “speedy” investigation into the fatal shooting of an Irish soldier this week.
The convoy of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) came under fire near the village of al-Aqbiya late Wednesday, also wounding three other peacekeepers, the Irish military said.
UNIFIL acts as a buffer between Lebanon and Israel, neighbors which remain technically at war. The force operates in the south near the border, a stronghold of the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and army chief Joseph Aoun visited the UNIFIL headquarters in the border town of Naqura, denouncing the attack that claimed Private Sean Rooney’s life.
Force spokesman Andrea Tenenti called it “a very serious incident” and told reporters it was “important” for the Lebanese authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice.
“It is a crime against the international community, against peacekeepers who are here… to maintain stability,” he added.
It is the first death of a UNIFIL member in a violent incident in Lebanon since January 2015, when a Spanish peacekeeper was killed by Israeli fire during an armed clash between the Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah.
“Peacekeepers are continuing with their activities and patrolling,” Tenenti added.
The flags of the force and its contributor countries were flying at half mast at the UNIFIL base, an AFP correspondent said, while one critically wounded soldier was still in intensive care.
UNIFIL was set up in 1978 to monitor the withdrawal of Israeli forces after they invaded southern Lebanon in reprisal for a Palestinian terror attack launched from the area.
Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000 but fought a devastating 2006 war with Hezbollah and its allies.
UNIFIL was beefed up to oversee the ceasefire that ended the 2006 conflict, and now counts nearly 10,000 troops.
Bullet to the head
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 the United Nations force.
Al-Aqbiya is just outside UNIFIL’s area of operations, the force said.
A Lebanese judicial source told AFP that the driver was killed by a bullet to the head, one of seven that penetrated the vehicle.
The three passengers were wounded when the vehicle hit a pylon and overturned.
The source said the evidence suggested there were two shooters, who were now being sought by the security forces.
Following a meeting in Naqura on Friday with UNIFIL commander Major General Aroldo Lazaro Saenz, premier Mikati said it was “important” to prevent similar attacks, and promised “those who will be proven guilty will be punished.”
The Irish army is to send military police to Lebanon on Saturday to help with the investigation.
Over the years, there have been a number of incidents between Hezbollah supporters and UN peacekeepers but they have rarely escalated.
Wafic Safa, Hezbollah’s security chief, told Lebanon’s LBCI television on Thursday that the incident was “unintentional” and called for investigators to be given time to establish the facts.
Relations between UNIFIL and communities in south Lebanon have always been “very positive,” the force’s spokesman Tenenti said Friday.
“The support of the communities is paramount in order for us to implement our mandate,” he added.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.