Hezbollah lashes out at Lebanese judge for alleging group linked with UN peacekeeper’s death

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s Hezbollah has lashed out at a Lebanese judge for alleging members of the militant group were behind last year’s killing of a U.N. peacekeeper, saying the powerful faction “had absolutely no relation to the incident.”

The comments by Hezbollah’s chief spokesman Mohammed Afif came a day after Lebanon’s military tribunal charged five men with the killing of an Irish peacekeeper in Lebanon’s south, a stronghold of the Iran-backed group. The indictment alleges all five men are linked to Hezbollah.

The charges follow on a half-year probe into an attack on a U.N. peacekeeping convoy near the town of Al-Aqbiya in December. The shooting resulted in the death of Pvt. Seán Rooney, 24, of Newtown Cunningham, Ireland, and seriously wounded Pvt. Shane Kearney, 22. The wounded peacekeeper was medically evacuated to Ireland. Two other Irish soldiers sustained light injuries.

“We had nothing to do with the incident,” Afif said. He added that the investigative judge at the military tribunal Fadi Sawwan “is intentionally offending Hezbollah.”

Repeated calls by The Associated Press to Sawwan were not answered.

A judicial official said Thursday that the indictment includes evidence from bystanders’ testimonies, as well as audio recordings and video footage from surveillance cameras. In some of the recordings of the confrontation, the gunmen reportedly could be heard telling the peacekeepers that they are from Hezbollah.

One of the five indicted, Mohamad Ayyad, is currently in custody of Lebanese authorities. The four others facing charges - Ali Khalifeh, Ali Salman, Hussein Salman, and Mustafa Salman - are at large.

Afif refused to say whether any of the charged men are Hezbollah members. He said Ayyad “was one of the residents who were there during the incident.”

The spokesman added that Hezbollah helped after the incident in “reducing tension through contacts” between the army and the U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon known as UNIFIL. He added that Hezbollah later coordinated between residents and the military judiciary to hand over Ayyad.

“The incident was not intentional and was not pre-meditated. Hezbollah had absolutely no relation to the incident,” Afif said.

On the fatal night, Rooney and several other Irish soldiers with UNIFIL were on their way from their southern base to the Beirut airport. Two U.N. vehicles reportedly took a wrong turn through Al-Aqbiya, which is not part of the area under the peacekeepers’ mandate.

Initial reports said angry residents confronted the peacekeepers, but the indictment concludes that the shooting was a targeted attack.

UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti said Thursday that the indictment was an “important step towards justice”.

UNIFIL was created to oversee the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon after Israel’s 1978 invasion. The U.N. expanded its mission following the 34-day 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 U.N. mission of collusion with Israel, while Israel has accused the peacekeepers of turning a blind eye to Hezbollah’s military activities in southern Lebanon.