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Lebanon deaths case in court, 22 years on

A case involving the controversial deaths of three Irish soldiers while on United Nations duty in Lebanon 22 years ago is due before the High Court this week -- 21 years after a compensation claim was first lodged.

The families of Corporal Fintan Heneghan, 28, Private Thomas Walsh, 29, and Private Mannix Armstrong, 26, have been seeking explanations about how they were killed by a landmine on a road that had not been swept for mines in March 1989.

Pte Armstrong's widow, Marian, took an action for compensation within a year of her husband's death, and the claim is due before the High Court this Wednesday.

The Army has consistently denied any negligence in the case. The three were sent to a hillside above the village of Brashit in south Lebanon to collect stones to fill gabion defence netting for one of the Irish posts. Their lorry struck a landmine believed to have been planted by the Hezbollah Islamic group and intended for the Israeli army which had used the road in the past.

The families found later the road had not been swept for mines as was supposed to be the practice, with south Lebanon at that time littered with roadside bombs and booby-traps. In 2003, they called for an independent inquiry into the deaths. The then Minister for Defence Michael Smith met the families after their case was highlighted in newspapers and on RTE's Prime Time.

An internal Army inquiry was carried out and reportedly found no negligence.

However, the families persisted with their calls and were backed by retired soldiers who had been serving in Lebanon at the time. However, there was never any indication that either the Defence Forces or the Department of Defence was prepared for an independent review of the events leading up to the deaths.

A total of 47 soldiers died during the 23 years up to 2001 that the Irish Battalion served with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon. Most were killed when the peace-keepers were caught up in clashes in the various conflicts that raged across Lebanon until the early 1990s, but several were killed in road accidents.

Three were murdered by a fellow soldier Michael McAleavey, from Belfast, who shot them dead at a checkpoint in 1982.

One soldier who died, Caomhan Seoige, from Co Galway, was kidnapped in 1981. The remains of the 20-year-old were never recovered.

Ten years after leaving Lebanon, the Army is on the verge of returning. Later this month, it will begin sending out the first of a detachment of 400 soldiers to south Lebanon to a camp only a few hundred metres from their former battalion headquarters outside the village of Tibnin.

The new detachment, which will provide security patrolling for other UN soldiers, will be based in a camp formerly occupied by the Norwegian UN battalion.

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The Irish soldiers are arriving at a time when the region is again in flux. There has been relative peace in the area since the war and Israeli invasion of 2006 that followed rocket attacks into Israel and attacks on Israeli tanks.

The growing problem in the country is that Hezbollah is again threatening civil war over a UN report on the investigation into the killing of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. He was killed in a massive suicide bomb attack on his convoy in Beirut.

Investigators, initially led by former Garda Assistant Commissioner Martin Donnellan, traced mobile phone calls from callers who had been following Mr Hariri's convoy back to a hospital in south Beirut which doubles as a Hezbollah HQ. Investigators have been able to identify phones used by senior Hezbollah figures who were directly linked to the assassination.

Mr Hariri's supporters, mainly Sunni Muslim and Christians led by his son Saad, who was deposed as prime minister by Hezbollah in January last, are demanding the publication of the UN report.

Hezbollah, which is Shia Muslim, is threatening civil war if its members are indicted in the report.

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