Lebanon's Hezbollah pushes back after indictments in peacekeeper's killing
BEIRUT, June 2, 2023 (AFP) - A Hezbollah official said Friday there was "no justification" for linking the powerful Lebanese group to an Irish peacekeeper's killing, a day after a judicial official accused five militants of last year's attack.
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 country's south.
Fadi Sawan, the investigating judge in the military tribunal for the case, had issued a 30-page indictment accusing five people of "forming a gang to commit a crime" and "intentional homicide", a judicial official told AFP Thursday, saying they were all Hezbollah members.
The Hezbollah official told AFP on condition of anonymity that "there is no justification for the judicial official to mention the group's name."
While the indictment does not state any group affiliation, the judicial official claimed evidence in the case showed links to the Iran-backed group.
But the Hezbollah official denied on Friday that any members of the Shiite Muslim group had been involved in the attack, stressing that the indictment does not mention Hezbollah by name.
Hezbollah was "not a party to the problem between local residents and the Irish patrol," the official said.
The group "played a major role in easing tensions following the incident. It contacted both the army and UNIFIL, and had a prominent role in encouraging residents to cooperate" with Lebanese authorities, he added.
Hezbollah has previously denied involvement in the incident, with its security chief Wafic Safa describing the killing as "unintentional".
Citing the indictment, the judicial official said surveillance camera footage near the scene of the attack showed armed men surrounding the UN patrol.
"Some of them could be heard saying 'we are Hezbollah' and using walkie-talkies to communicate," added the official, requesting anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the press.
Mohammad Ayyad, who has been in custody since Hezbollah handed him over to the army in December, was accused along with four others -- who are not in custody -- of "intentional homicide", the official said.
In January, Lebanon charged Ayyad, the four others and two more fugitives with involvement in the attack.
UNIFIL, made up of some 10,000 peacekeepers, has been deployed since 1978 to act as a buffer between Lebanon and Israel, countries which remain technically in a state of war.
There have been incidents in the past between Hezbollah supporters and UNIFIL patrols, but they have rarely escalated.