Justice vow over peacekeeper deaths
Published 12/08/2014 | 14:25
The Government has assured relatives of two Irish peacekeepers murdered 34 years ago that it will do everything possible to get justice for them.
Defence Minister Simon Coveney made the declaration a day after a Lebanese former militia man, Mahmoud Bazzi, accepted to be deported from the US for immigration offences.
The 71-year-old, who earned a living selling ice cream after setting up home in Michigan, is the prime suspect for the murder of Privates Derek Smallhorne and Thomas Barrett while they were on duty with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) near the Israeli border on April 18, 1980.
The soldiers were taken hostage, tortured and shot by the South Lebanese Army (SLA), a Christian militia in the war-torn region at the time which was in conflict with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO).
Robbie Masterson, of the Justice for Smallhorne and Barrett group, said the deportation was a day supporters thought they would never see.
"For the first time in 34 years the opportunity now exists to bring this man to trial. It is now up to the Irish Government to liaise with and ensure the Lebanese authorities honour their previous commitments and prosecute Bazzi," he said.
A date for Bazzi's deportation from the US has not been confirmed but it is expected within a month.
Two eyewitnesses, Associated Press journalist Steve Hindy and former UN peacekeeper John O'Mahony from Scartaglin, Co Kerry, have spoken publicly about how the abduction unfolded.
Private Barrett, 30, from Cork, and Private Smallhorne, 31, from Dublin were both married with three children.
They were last seen alive in the back of a car as it was driven off by SLA militia men after the troops were confronted as they travelled in a convoy and became involved in a shoot out.
It is understood that the witnesses were on hand to give statements to authorities if Bazzi attempted to fight the deportation.
Despite that, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment on the murder case or whether Bazzi will be charged on his arrival in Lebanon but a spokesman has said the "allegations of what happened in Lebanon factor heavily in our investigation and our efforts to remove him".
Bazzi has claimed he was ordered to take responsibility for the killings by a superior officer in the militia.
Mr Coveney is the latest in a succession of defence ministers to be pressured by the families and campaigners to make approaches to the US to take action against Bazzi since he was traced to Middle Eastern community in Dearborn near Detroit more than a decade ago.
He said: "This is an important step in the process to bring to justice the alleged perpetrator of what was an atrocious crime, the torture and murder of two innocent Irish peacekeepers.
"I am following developments in this case closely and officials at the Irish embassies in Washington and in Cairo, which is accredited to Lebanon, are monitoring developments.
"I would like to assure the families that I and the Irish Government will continue to do everything possible to pursue justice for both men who lost their lives in the line of peacekeeping duty."