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Lebanon's Hezbollah denies links to suspects in killing of UN Irish peacekeeper

Hezbollah officials have denied court findings that five people formally accused of killing an Irish soldier of the UNIFIL last year were members of Hezbollah.
A vehicle of the UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) Italian contingent patrols in the village of Seddiqine in the southern Lebanese district of Tyre, from near where four rockets were fired towards Israel, on May 19, 2021. - The Israeli army confirmed the attack, saying it retaliated with artillery fire. It is the third time rockets have been launched from Lebanese territory towards Israel since hostilities flared between the Jewish state and armed Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip last wee

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s militant juggernaut Hezbollah movement has denied having any links to five people who were indicted Thursday over their alleged involvement in the killing of an Irish peacekeeper in the south of the country last year.

Fadi Sawan, the investigating judge in the country’s military tribunal, issued a 30-page indictment Friday against five people for “forming a group of malefactors to commit a crime,” a judicial official told AFP on Wednesday. The accused were referred to military trial and could face the death penalty under Lebanon’s penal code. A court document has revealed that the five accused were members of the Shiite Hezbollah group and its ally, the Amal Movement.

One of the five men indicted, Mohamad Ayyad, has been in the custody of Lebanese authorities since he was detained in December shortly after the attack. Hezbollah said back then the man was a supporter but not a member of the movement. The four others, identified as Ali Khalifeh, Ali Salman, Hussein Salman and Mustafa Salman, remain at large.

In December 2022, Private Sean Rooney was killed and another seriously injured when two UNIFIL armored vehicles came under small arms fire in southern Lebanon. The UNIFIL patrol was reportedly heading from its base in the south toward the Beirut airport when it took a detour in al-Aqbiya village, a Hezbollah stronghold, outside the area of its operations. The UN patrol was reportedly surrounded by several vehicle and a group of angry men who fired at the UN soldiers.

Hezbollah denied involvement in the attack and called it “unintentional.” But Thursday’s indictment concludes that the attack was targeted.

On Friday, Reuters cited Hezbollah media official Mohammad Afif as saying that the five accused were not members of his group and stressing that Hezbollah has contributed to reducing tensions in the area following last year’s incident.

Another Hezbollah official also denied the movement’s involvement in the killing.

“There is no justification for the judicial official to mention the group's name,” the source, who requested anonymity, told Agence France-Presse on Friday.

He added that Hezbollah “played a major role in easing tensions following the incident," saying, "It contacted both the army and UNIFIL and had a prominent role in encouraging residents to cooperate” with Lebanese authorities.

In 1978, the UN Security Council established the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, which deployed in Lebanon following the Israeli invasion during the country’s civil war. In 2006, the mission was expanded to include more than 10,000 troops patrolling southern Lebanon to oversee a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah following a 30-day war.

Attacks against UNIFIL are rare, despite sporadic incidents in the past. In 2007, six Spanish UN peacekeepers were killed by a car bomb in the town of Khiam in the south. In 2011, several UN troops were injured in separate explosions targeting their convoys in the south of Lebanon.

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