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Private Seán Rooney Defence Forces/family
Lebanon

Irish soldier killed in Lebanon after convoy vehicles were separated during routine patrol

Private Seán Rooney was named as the soldier who lost his life, while 22-year-old Shane Kearney was seriously injured.

LAST UPDATE | 15 Dec 2022

THE IRISH SOLDIER killed in an attack on a convoy of UN peacekeepers in Lebanon has been named as 23-year-old Private Seán Rooney from Newtowncunningham in Co Donegal.

Another soldier – 22-year-old Shane Kearney from Killeagh in Co Cork – was seriously injured in the incident and remains in a critical condition in hospital.

Two other soldiers were injured in the incident, which took place when two armoured vehicles were travelling in a convoy and got separated. The routine patrol, which was taking place as two personnel had been granted special leave due to family bereavements, escalated into an incident where an “aggressive mob” blocked one of the cars and small arms fire was reported. The remaining four personnel from the convoy were not injured.

An investigation is taking place into the circumstances surrounding the attack. The soldiers were serving as part of UNIFIL – the UN peacekeeping mission in the country – when the convoy came under attack at around 11.15pm local time (9.15pm Irish time) last night.

UNIFIL said it happened near the village of Al-Aqbiya, just outside the force’s area of operations in a strip along Lebanon’s southern border with Israel.

The Defence Forces said this morning that a convoy of two Armoured Utility Vehicles (AUVs) carrying eight personnel from the 121st Infantry Battalion was travelling to the Lebanese capital of Beirut when it came under small arms fire.

Four personnel were taken to Raee Hospital, near the city of Sidon. One soldier was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. Another has undergone surgery.

The three injured soldiers have been moved from Raee Hospital to a UN-managed hospital in nearby Hammoud since this morning.

“Private Seán Rooney joined the Defence Forces in March 2019 and his home unit is the 27 Infantry Battalion in Dundalk. He previously served overseas with the 119 Infantry Battalion UNIFIL,” the Defence Forces statement said. 

“Private Shane Kearney joined the Defence Forces in October 2018 and his home Unit is 1 Cavalry Squadron in Collins Barracks Cork. He previously served overseas with the 117 Infantry Battalion UNIFIL.”

Investigation

Speaking on RTÉ Radio One’s Drivetime this evening, Defence Forces Press Officer Commandant Gemma Fagan said that the injured soldiers are “being looked after by all the supports and services that we have available to us there”.

They’ll be getting the absolute best level of care that we can offer them.

The Defence Forces has dispatched liaison officers to the families of the personnel who were travelling in the convoy. 

She said that while there are “still pieces of the puzzle missing” and information coming in, what they do know is that two vehicles left in a convoy on a routine patrol, and that among the personnel were two who were granted special leave to attend a funeral.

“Orders would have been given prior to the vehicles leaving camp and a patrol route would have been decided upon,” said Commandant Fagan. There were four people in each armoured utility vehicle. It’s understood that when the two vehicles in the convoy reached Al-Aqbiya, they were separated “in some shape or form” and the second vehicle was surrounded by a “large, aggressive mob”.

It experienced what is termed a “denial of freedom of movement,” Commandant Fagan said, where they were blocked front and rear by the group, and the situation escalated to small arms fire. Communications were then lost with the patrol and the four soldiers were subsequently delivered to hospital.

The situation “became volatile and escalated quite quickly”.

A Crisis Incident Response Team is being deployed to Lebanon and an investigation will take place involving authorities from Ireland, Lebanon, and the United Nations.

Reaction

Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces Lieutenant General Seán Clancy said earlier this morning that the force was “deeply shocked and saddened by the news of this tragic event and the loss of one of our peacekeepers”.

Speaking later to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Clancy said the incident is “something none of us ever want to face in uniform service”. 

Clancy said the soldier who underwent surgery – Shane Kearney – is still in a critical condition.

Also speaking on Morning Ireland, Defence Minister Simon Coveney said the convoy was “effectively attacked by a mob” and that the incident “obviously needs further investigation to understand fully how this happened”.

Coveney said the incident occurred during a “standard administrative run” that he himself has been on during his trips to the UN peacekeeping camp in Lebanon.

And the two armoured vehicles effectively got separated. One of them got surrounded by a hostile mob – I think that’s the only way you could describe them – and shots were fired and unfortunately one of our peacekeepers was killed.

A photographer for news service AFP reported that a UNIFIL vehicle had slammed into a shop on the road towards Sidon. Witnesses also told AFP the vehicle had been blocked by villagers after it took a road along the Mediterranean coast not normally used by the UN force.

They said they had heard gunfire and the driver had appeared to lose control of the vehicle as the convoy attempted to leave the area.

Security sources who spoke to The Journal said the group that surrounded one of the vehicles attempted to block its progress and that shots were later fired. 

Coveney said this is “the worst possible news that a family could hear”, adding that the families affected were informed between 2am and 5am Irish time.

It’s just shocking, just before Christmas in particular, in terms of the time of year, but it’s shocking to ever lose somebody who is serving their country overseas as a peacekeeper.

The Iran-backed Shia Islamist group Hezbollah are active in the area. However a senior Hezbollah official told Reuters this morning an “unintentional incident” had led to the death of the Irish soldier, insisting the armed group was not involved.

Wafiq Safa told Reuters his party offered its condolences “after the unintentional incident that took place between the residents of al-Aqbiya and individuals from the Irish unit.”

He urged that Hezbollah not be “inserted” into the incident, Reuters reported. 

‘Shock’

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, who is in Brussels for an EU Council Summit, said he shares a “deep sense of sadness and shock” following the death of the peacekeeper. 

“I want to express the heartfelt sorrow of the Government of Ireland at the loss of a young person serving overseas with the United Nations,” he said.  

In particular, I extend to his family our deepest sympathies for the terrible loss they have suffered. It is a reminder that our peacekeepers serve in dangerous circumstances, at all times, in the cause of peace. Our thoughts are with his colleagues, and to the wider Defence Forces family and all who serve overseas, we know how deeply you will feel this loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with you. 

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‘Deepest sorrow’

President Michael D Higgins expressed his “deepest sorrow”. He said in his statement that Ireland takes great pride in its record of peacekeeping with the United Nations.

“However, we must never forget the dangers that come with this work, or how the members of our Defence Forces serving on peacekeeping missions abroad risk their lives every day in order to build and maintain peace in conflict zones across the world.”

President Higgins said that as Supreme Commander of the Defence Forces it was “with a heavy heart, and conscious of the great loss it will represent to them, that I offer my deepest condolences to the family, colleagues and friends of the member of the Defence Forces who has lost their life”.

He added that it was “a life lost serving the people of Ireland, serving the United Nations, and serving all those wishing for peace in our shared world”.

May I also wish a speedy recovery to those other members of the Defence Forces injured in the incident. Our thoughts are with them at this time.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said Ireland was united in grief at the loss of the soldier. 

“Our thoughts are with the bereaved family, and with the families of the injured. We salute the bravery of all concerned.”

Opposition politicians have also been sharing their condolences. 

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said she wanted to share her “deepest sympathies to his family and friends and to all those serving in the Irish Defence Forces”. 

Labour leader Ivana Bacik described it as “horrific news”. 

“I know anyone listening will be just so distressed to hear this very sad news and to be thinking of the family, friends and of course the colleagues serving in the Defence Forces and all those affected by this,” she said.  

This afternoon saw the Dáil hold a minute’s silence in tribute to the peacekeepers.

Representative groups for soldiers have been paying tribute to their late comrade.

The general secretary of RACO, the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, said Private Rooney had “paid the ultimate price in the service of peace”.

“We are devastated to learn that one of our comrades in the 121 Infantry Battalion has paid the ultimate price in the service of peace in Lebanon last night,” Lieutenant Colonel Conor King said.

“Our thoughts are with the families of the deceased and injured, and their colleagues. It brings home the inherent risk of overseas operations, and the sacrifice our troops and their families make on a daily basis.

“Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.”

Gerard Guinan, the general secretary of PDFORRA, said he was shocked to hear the news this morning and wished for the recovery and safe return of Private Kearney.

“Our heartfelt thoughts and prayers goes out to his family, friends and comrades,” Guinan said. 

In a statement, Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell said: “I pray our injured soldiers recover quickly. My heart goes out to the family of our deceased peacekeeper.”

“I hope that they will find some comfort knowing their loved one gave his life in the cause of peace. Sadly this incident brings home the reality that when our men and women deploy on UN missions they do so always in the knowledge that they put their lives on the line for peace,” the senator said.

“It has been over two decades since an Irish soldier was killed in Lebanon. We need to focus more on ensuring the safety of all Irish personnel deployed abroad. I believe that those responsible for this ambush must be identified and held accountable. I commend the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence, Simon Coveney for saying there needs to be a full investigation. Still, more needs to be done to ensure that the Irish Defence Forces are well-resourced.”

Na Piarsaigh/Blackrock GAA in Dundalk, of which Private Rooney was a member, said it was “stunned” at the loss of the young man.

“We are shocked, saddened and heartbroken to hear of the tragic death of young Sean Rooney last night in Lebanon,” a social media post by the club said, also adding that his family are the “epitome of what our community stands for”.

“We would like to offer them our support and sincere condolences during this very difficult time. Our thoughts and prayers are with his mother Natasha, grandparents Eugene and Rachel, uncle John, aunt Tara and cousin Eugene.”

Religious leaders pay tribute

Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh and Archbishop Dermot Farrell of Dublin expressed their deepest sympathies to the Rooney family this afternoon.

“Private Rooney’s bravery, honor and commitment to peace will never be forgotten,” the archbishops said.

“We offer our prayers for the happy repose of Private Rooney’s soul, and for peace and consolation of his family, loved ones and to the wider community of the Defence Forces.

“We also remember in our prayers the injured Private Shane Kearney and his family at this time.”

They added that as the tragedy had come so close to Christmas, it “reminds all of us of the work and sacrifices that our Defence Forces, and their families, are asked to make on our behalf to promote peace and reconciliation in our world”.

Earlier this year the Taoiseach visited troops serving in Lebanon and laid a wreath to the 47 members of the Defence Forces who had died to date while in service on peacekeeping duty there.

Irish soldiers have been serving as part of UNIFIL – the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon – since 1978. Over 30,000 Defence Forces members have served in the force since its inception.

- With reporting by Niall O’Connor, Rónán Duffy, Hayley Halpin, Eoghan Dalton and Lauren Boland

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