A U.N. peacekeeper in southern Lebanon was shot and killed Wednesday night when the armored vehicle he was in came under gunfire in an incident that is under investigation.
The peacekeepers, part of a United Nations mission deployed along the Lebanese border with Israel, were not on patrol at the time of the episode, which occurred outside their area of operations in the south.
Pvt. Seán Rooney, a member of the Irish battalion, was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
Seven other peacekeepers were traveling with him from southern Lebanon to Beirut. Another peacekeeper is in serious condition and two others received minor injuries.
The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or Unifil, has been deployed in Lebanon since 1978. Its mandate was expanded to patrolling the border after the 2006 war between Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, and Israel.
“At the moment, details are sparse and conflicting,” the U.N. force said in a statement. It is investigating the killing in coordination with the Lebanese Army.
More than 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers from 48 countries patrol and help keep the peace along the 75-mile frontier between Lebanon and Israel, known as the Blue Line.
The Blue Line is a demarcation set by the U.N. to confirm Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, ending its 15-year occupation of southern Lebanon.
The border between the two countries, who remain in a declared war with each other, remains unresolved and in dispute, making the area a tense, and at times dangerous, place with outbreaks of conflict occasionally flaring.
The area is lined with minefields and barbed-wire fencing and surveilled by drones with the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah on one side and Israel on the other.
“We are in a peacekeeping mission and a peacekeeping mission is by nature in an area surrounded by a volatile situation and instability,” said Andrea Tenenti, the Unifil spokesman. “But in the last several months the situation in south Lebanon has been calm, and we haven’t suffered any incidents.”
Private Rooney’s killing is the first since 2015 when a Spanish peacekeeper was killed by Israeli fire during clashes between Israel and Hezbollah.
Since 1978, 335 Unifil peacekeepers have been killed or died while deployed in Lebanon, including of natural causes.
Southern Lebanon is a Hezbollah stronghold, but a group spokesman said they had nothing to do with the incident.
The spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the attack, said the episode involved local villagers and one of the two Unifil peacekeeping vehicles. The U.N. vehicle drove off the main highway as it was heading north and into the village of Al-Aqbiya, south of the coastal city of Sidon, around midnight, he said.
Residents stopped the vehicle and questioned the peacekeepers about why they were there, the spokesman said (Al-Aqbiya is outside their patrol area). As the vehicle drew a bigger crowd, tensions rose and some of the residents began hitting the vehicle, he said.
The vehicle rammed two residents, wounding them and sending them to the hospital, he said.
After the ramming, one man opened fire on the vehicle, killing the peacekeeper.
“Let’s wait for the investigation to be concluded because there are too many sensitivities and it’s better to get a proper understanding of the events and what led to the incident,” Mr. Tenenti said in response to Hezbollah’s account.
Lebanese officials condemned the attack and urged a thorough investigation into the incident.
“Aggression against members of the peacekeeping forces will not pass without accountability,” Lebanon’s interior minister, Bassam Mawlawi, wrote Thursday on Twitter.
“Preserving their safety is a duty based on our absolute belief in the importance of implementing international resolutions,” he said on Twitter.
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut