Why did they die?

THE BIG READ: Conor Ryan

Families have long suspected a cover-up in the investigation into how three soldiers died in a roadside bomb blast in 1989. Now sensational evidence has emerged that has prompted the Government to launch an independent inquiry and settle a 21-year court case with one of their widows. Investigative Correspondent Conor Ryan explains why it happened now

IN MARCH 1989, three young Irish soldiers were blown up in a targeted landmine attack by local rebels on a remote dirt track at Bra’shit in southern Lebanon.

There is some consensus on the motive, method and men behind the killing.

Yet enormous mystery shrouds the circumstances which allowed Corporal Fintan Heneghan, 28, Private Tomás Walsh, 30, and Private Mannix Armstrong, 26, to drive over the massive landmine on an unsafe road while collecting rocks to fortify their besieged bases.

For two decades, the suffering of their widows, children, siblings and parents has been compounded by suspicions, inquiries, denials and, more recently, an extra-ordinary about-turn by the Department of Defence.

This came after 22 years in which the Irish army and the United Nations stood by the assertion that there was no evidence of negligence in the decision to send the three soldiers on their final journey.

The affair would, in all likelihood, have drifted from memory and rested in the record books as an unavoidable tragedy during one of the most dangerous peacekeeping tours the Irish Army has ever embarked on.

PERSISTENT WIDOW

However, this was stymied by the widow of Private Armstrong, who persisted with a 21-year fight for both compensation and the truth about why her husband was ordered to drive his colleagues on a menial chore in a remote location where they became an easy target for a disgruntled militia.

Gráinne Armstrong (pictured) was widowed a month before she gave birth to Private Armstrong’s first daughter. She initiated her court case a year later.

Her case against the Irish state and the defence minister argued that, because of negligence by his commanding officers, her husband became an easy target for groups angry at the Irish unit.

Her legal team said senior officers failed to order a mine sweep and ensure the dirt track where the soldiers were ordered to pick rocks was safe to travel on.

It also claimed the army had not made a proper effort to protect the safety of the soldiers.

The state had vociferously contested every stage. Yet on the eve of the case it sensationally changed its position.

The hearing was postponed, an independent inquiry was launched and the state offered to settle the case €300,000.

Ms Armstrong has not spoken publicly since she left the High Court with her daughter, Shannon.

However, a spokesman for the soldiers’ families and Corporal Heneghan’s brother, Enda, said the case would make life very difficult for the army.

“Certainly I believe this was a cover-up and if there was such behaviour in any other area [other than the army] the consequences would be quite severe.

“Given the circumstances and the code red danger for soldiers at that time, it was a completely unnecessary task they were asked to do, even if the proper mine-detecting procedures were put in place, which they were not,” he said.

He said the families had been very happy with the decision of Defence Minister Alan Shatter to demand an inquiry.

He said they supplied 10 witnesses and were pleased with the way in which it has been handled. He hoped the report would vindicate their struggle.

“If it is as we looked for, and fought for, and talked about for 22 years, and the inquiry finds this it is really quite damning.”

Privately, suggestions arose early from colleagues in the army that the truck should never have been sent to the grass- lined track south of Bra’shit.

But it was not until the eve of Ms Armstrong’s recent court hearing that evidence emerged to undermine the official view of events.

This came from an army witness who had not been approached in previous inquiries but was questioned by the state’s defence team at the last minute. His testimony threw its entire case into chaos.

These details, which have remained secret, prompted the Armstrong hearing to be postponed. An inquiry was immediately ordered by Mr Shatter.

Intriguingly, Mr Shatter said new evidence had come to light which, if it had been known at the time of earlier investigations, would likely have prompted different conclusions.

Senior counsel Frank Call-anan has since been appointed to produce an independent report which is due on the minister’s desk by August 19.

Neither the army or the Department of Defence were prepared to comment in advance of the publication of the inquiry.

However, the thrust of their arguments were aired in past public discussions.

Critically, the fact that the state pulled back from its erstwhile stubborn position and allowed Mr Callanan to probe deeper than the internal army investigation suggests it lost confidence in its stance.

The families of those involved were invited to nominate witnesses and provide additional documentation.

The hope is that Mr Callanan can address key questions the Irish army has so far failed to convincingly answer.

Ironically, had the state settled the Armstrong case earlier, it may have avoided exposing uncomfortable discrepancies in the official record.

It was only in preparing its defence that the new details came to light.

For once, justice delayed may have allowed time for truth to triumph.

As more soldiers from that time retired and felt freer to talk, the three bereaved families have been told that something was very wrong with the order to pick stones near a blown-up observation post along a largely disused grass track.

In the midst of these remarkable twists, the Dáil voted to send 440 troops to rejoin the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNFIL) after a 10-year absence.

DEEP SUSPICION

Irish army and UN inquiries have dismissed suggestions of negligence and a subsequent internal army inquiry supported the view that all that could have been done to prevent the deaths was done.

But in the space between the official line, the emerging evidence and the circumstances on the day, there has grown a deep suspicion that the truth has been buried in the hills of southern Lebanon.

It was four hours after sunrise when the Renault truck carrying Corporal Heneghan, Private Armstrong and Private Walsh turned back towards home. The men had left Camp Shamrock at 7.25am and drove towards a largely out-of-use dirt track five miles from the Israeli border. It had been the access route for an outpost, 619, inside the Irish area of operation.

However, the post was blown up in March 1987 and UNIFIL maps show that the lands around it had slipped into Israeli control as the invader’s proxy forces quickly expanded their influence on the ground.

These forces, the South Lebanon Army (SLA) and the Defacto Defence Forces (DFF), increased their positions inside UNIFIL’s area of operations by 20% in early 1989. An Israeli look-out was situated less than a kilometre from track. And the DFF and SLA’s provocative actions and trigger-happy habits had caused great difficulties for all peacekeeping forces.

On December 15, 1988, four Lebanese resistance fighters were arrested by the SLA. The SLA operatives had passed undetected through a checkpoint manned by Irish soldiers, and local fighters alleged collusion. The aggression and arrogance of the SLA heightened the sense of outrage among the Lebanese community and provided moral ammunition to the Hezbollah-backed militia groups.

The new leader of the Believers Resistance, Mustafa Diraini, vowed revenge against the Irish.

At one point in the backlash, an Irish checkpoint was overrun and three soldiers were kidnapped and released in an apparent prisoner swap deal with the Israelis.

All the while, Diraini’s group was getting particularly keen on laying roadside bombs, adopting a two-device technique borrowed from the Provisional IRA.

Relationships at a local level were strained. This was worsened by an increasingly dangerous attitude of disrespect shown towards UNIFIL by the Israel operators.

The Irish army have said the threat level had receded by March 1989, particularly in relation to terrorist-planted mines. Periodical UN reports to the Security Council at the time suggest a far more charged atmosphere.

Irish bases were routinely fired upon by the DFF and SLA. On February 29, 1989, an Irish soldier, 21-year-old Michael McNeela, was shot dead by the Israelis engaged in indiscriminate and unprovoked attacks on the Lebanese. That night, 34 rounds were fired at the UNIFIL base at Haddatha. A single round killed Private McNeela as he stood sentry at a crossroads.

Three months later, Israeli tank rounds exploded near 10 Irish soldiers in Camp Shamrock, seriously injuring one man.

In March 1989 there were 21 attacks by resistance groups against the Israel forces, matched by return shelling and mortar attacks.

Norwegian and Fijian UNIFIL soldiers were hit, in addition to sustained threats to the Irish.

UNIFIL WARNINGS

Significantly, in each of the six-month periods leading up to the explosion at Bra’shit the secretary general of UNIFIL warned the Security Council about the lack of bomb-squad personnel.

It was felt there was a “high risk” of mines and, in the first six months of 1989, UNIFIL had to carry out 31 controlled explosions.

In increasingly desperate reports, he said the French explosives ordinance battalion had pulled out in 1987 and no replacement emerged.

The French contingent was the unit responsible for clearing, defusing and destroying for the entire UNIFIL operation. Their absence left the peacekeepers vulnerable to roadside bombs.

In the late 1980s, both at home and on the ground, the wisdom for continuing to deploy soldiers under the blue beret was widely questioned. UNIFIL’s rolling six-month mandate lacked the respect of both warring forces and was left short of funding by contributing countries.

The 591 members of the Irish infantry battalion were on as dangerous a tour as any in our proud peacekeeping history.

Corporal Heneghan had resisted calls from his family to come home. Nonetheless, he and the two privates travelling in the Renault truck with him were due to finish their spell in the Lebanon in mid-April 1989.

Their bodies came home two weeks earlier than planned, their fate sealed long before an explosion sent their five-tonne truck flying into a field.

It has never been properly established as to why the task of collecting rocks was suddenly given to Irish soldiers. It was typically a job done by paid locals: the money helped boost a beleaguered economy inside the UNIFIL zone.

However, in the days leading up to March 21, soldiers from Camp Shamrock had taken turns to collect rocks from around the blown up and abandoned post.

Some soldiers, including retired Declan Gaffney, have stated publicly that they raised safety concerns but were told to obey orders.

In these few days of rock-collecting, no proper daily mine sweep was carried out, which would have involved a trained advance party carrying out “early bird” examinations. Senior soldiers on rock-collection duty were not even instructed to leave the cab and walk in front to look out for detonator wires.

On March 21, the three men had arrived at the abandoned post so early there would have been no time for a standard “early bird” check to have been done. The track was not even on this team’s work schedule.

The Official UN investigation decided that, overnight on March 20/21, two devices were buried a short distance apart along this sloping track.

In driving up in their Renault the Irish soldiers unwittingly triggered the first of the two-part Soviet-made mine.

The massive bomb was intended to prime while the truck drove up the road towards a smaller device. This was set to explode immediately.

Had they set off the second device the men would have been killed, while the first bomb would have gone off when the support crews arrived.

The loss of life would have been far greater. Fortunately, the second mine was not discovered until a day after the killing when it could be safely detonated, too late for Corporal Heneghan and his colleagues.

Two of the three men died in the explosion; another passed away before medics reached him.

On Prime Time in 2003, the Irish army said the particular track was authorised for use by all UN personnel and claimed an overwhelming body of evidence supported its view.

However, the families and former soldiers said this was not the case. They alleged a cover-up had been orchestrated, centred on whether or not the road was suitable.

They said the road was deemed out of bounds and, because it was inside the Israeli area of control, movement should have been restricted.

This would have been in line with UNIFIL operating procedure at the time. But the Irish army claimed all procedure was followed. In March 1989, media reports, based on army comments, suggested the bomb exploded outside the Israeli-controlled zone.

In addition, a statement on the day of the tragedy from the then UN secretary general, Javier Perez De Cuellar, said “the soldiers were on a routine administrative run on a route commonly used”.

Neither aspect of the initial commentary appears to have been the case.

The UNIFIL maps from January 1989 (see graphic on the previous page) show the track was more than a mile inside the DFF/SLA zone, in land peacekeepers should have controlled but could not.

Subsequent inquiries found Irish troops only started using the track shortly before the killing. In the past number of weeks, photographs have emerged on the internet — these are reprinted today — which show the poor state of the road at the time of the explosion. The spread of grass shows how neglected a thoroughfare it was. Without tarmac or surfacing, and flanked by stone walls, it appeared highly vulnerable to buried booby traps. Movements along the track could also be easily monitored from nearby positions not under UNIFIL control.

Soldiers, who had served in Lebanon at the time, told Prime Time that this track was unsafe and should not have been used.

The army countered that while the killings proved it was ultimately unsafe, the track was authorised for use and until that morning would have been deemed safe for UN vehicles.

Yet it was only declared active by the Irish battalion in the days leading up to March 21, without any extensive check to search for suspicious devices.

These conflicting views on the morning of March 21, 1989, and the sensational fresh evidence is now in the hands of Mr Callanan to decide if the official version is honest.

And if not, why not.

The first open allegation of a cover-up was made more than 10 years ago. The families’ spokes- man, Mr Heneghan, said their suspicions were first heightened when he was approached by a retired member of the defence forces who suggested nobody should have been near that road.

He was told there was no proper mine-sweeping done and the route was dangerous. He was told the road was not just unsafe, it was also out of bounds. It was alleged that a signpost had been erected to this effect but, so far, no photographic evidence has been found to prove this.

In a 2003 Prime Time investigation, the families challenged the army’s argument that it was useable.

However, the army has stood by the conclusions of incident reports by it, the UN and a separate unpublished inquiry by the Irish army. These said the road was in use, it was for the men themselves to scan for mines and the booby-trap could not have been avoided.

They said the threat level posed by mines and roadside bombs was not great. The army spokesman said this type of device was confined to defensive minefields and the use of roadside bombs in terrorist roles had never happened in southern Lebanon, particularly against Irish and UNIFIL forces.

He said local fighters did not have the expertise to plant these devices.

However, UN records show that the danger of roadside devices was deemed to be greater by officers serving at the time. Reports state they had been used increasingly to attack Israeli forces, rather than to defend positions.

In 1988 and 1989 the UN said these unexploded bombs posed a “high risk” to civilian and UNIFIL personnel. Because the Israeli forces were known to control the land south of Bra’shit, tracks such as the one in question would have been ideal for militants to with mines.

Ex-soldiers have said this should have automatically raised the threat level .

Contrary to official comments, roadside bombs had been used by the Lebanese resistance to attack UNIFIL when it felt the visiting force colluded with Israelis. In August 1986, an Irish lieutenant was killed by a roadside bomb set by resistance fighters. In September that year, three French soldiers died after a similar device exploded in their sector. Ten days later two colleagues were killed in another roadside blast.

For years, the families of the Irish soldiers have been keenly aware of the flaws in the official line.

One court settlement may represent a unexpected achievement. But real success will be measured by whether the full truth surrounding the deaths of the three men emerges in the report to Mr Shatter this summer.

Soldiers’ deaths clouded in controversy

In this investigation into the deaths of three Irish soldiers, a witness has undermined the State’s case, writes Conor Ryan

RESPECTED barrister Frank Callanan has been given four months to get to the bottom of a case which has left the deaths of three Irish soldiers clouded in controversy for 22 years.

His independent inquiry has been set up by Defence Minister Alan Shatter following the emergence of new evidence in the preparation of the state’s case against the widow of one of the soldiers.

The inquiry terms have allowed for the families of the deceased to nominate witnesses and supply any documents or evidence they deem appropriate.

This means soldiers who served in Lebanon at the time will be interviewed, even though they did not come under the scope of previous military investigations.

There are four main areas of contention which Mr Callanan will have to take a view on:

THE THREAT LEVEL

A lot of dispute has centred on what level of threat the Irish forces were under at the time and the danger posed by roadside bombs.

The killings happened at a time when the Irish were under siege and in an area controlled by Israeli forces. Both details are critical.

In December 1988, four Lebanese resistance suspects were arrested by an Israeli proxy outfit. The Israelis had passed undetected through a checkpoint manned by Irish soldiers, and local resistance fighters alleged collusion.

The leader of the Believers Resistance, Mustafa Diraini, vowed revenge. His group had taken to planting attack mines in the style of the IRA.

Local Lebanese rebels had also been known to lay roadside bombs in reprisal attacks against peacekeepers which in the past had killed Irish and French soldiers. Ahead of the March 1989 attack, UNIFIL had warned about the dangers of these devices.

While the Irish forces were a target, so too were the Israelis. Because the area around the bomb site had fallen into control of the Israeli-backed paramilitaries, all roads in the zone would have been obvious attack points for those seeking casualties among the occupying forces.

That March, there were 21 attacks against the Israelis, the highest for some time, and these were more than matched by heaving shelling and mortar attacks in return.

WAS THE ROAD SAFE AND IN USE?

Almost immediately after the explosion, serving soldiers began to relay reservations about the safety of the road to the bereaved families.

Retired soldier Declan Gaffney told Primetime in 2003 he had voiced his concern days before his colleagues were killed.

Newly-emerged photos of the road showed that it barely deserved the name. It was a botharín which went to an abandoned observation post blown up in 1987. It had not been in use by UNIFIL. And it was not a route to anywhere.

Reports said that Irish forces had begun driving the road in month leading up to the explosion. But in reality the battalion only starting collecting stones along it in the week previous.

What has never been revealed is why a decision was taken to start using the road again and what efforts were made to ensure it was safe.

Mr Callanan’s inquiry will have to establish on what day Irish soldiers started using the road. What was the general purpose of trips along this route?

And were any practices adopted to monitor the road?

WAS THE ROAD SWEPT FOR MINES?

In each of the six-month blocks leading up to the explosion at Bra’shit, the Secretary General of UNIFIL warned the security council about the lack of bomb-squad personnel.

This was because of a feeling there was a “high risk” threat of mines and the fact in the first six months of 1989 UNIFIL had to carry out 31 controlled explosions on mines and bombs.

In increasingly desperate reports, he said the French explosives ordinance battalion had pulled out in 1987 and he had made continuing efforts to have it replaced. The French contingent was the unit responsible for clearing, defusing and destroying for the entire UNIFIL operation.

The bereaved families had been told, following official inquiries, that French experts had checked the road and declared it safe.

This suggested the capability to properly secure the area was not at the disposable of UNIFIL in March 1989.

Henry McDonald’s insightful book on the Irish in Lebanon (1993) recalls how the Irish forces were informed when they looked for support, on a separate occasion, that once the French left it was each individual battalion’s responsibility to deal with mines.

Eventually the Irish Government answered UNIFIL’s call by sending a specialist team but this was only after the event on March 21, 1989.

IF THE OFFICIAL VERSION OF EVENTS IS WRONG IS THERE A COVER UP?

The state denied any wrongdoing for 22 years and strongly contested a legal compensation claim from one of the widows.

Yet only at the last minute did a witness emerge that undermined the state’s case to such an extent that Mr Shatter demanded an independent investigation.

If this evidence was not supplied to previous inquiries or there are signs of a cover-up, Mr Callanan will have to examine why the Irish Army would go to such lengths when deaths in the Lebanon were a tragic reality at a particularly dangerous time.

Picture: Grainne Armstrong and daughter Shannon leaving the High Court on Thursday after a settlement of €300,000 was approved. Mrs Armstrong’s husband Mannix was one of the three men killed in the Lebanon in 1989. Picture: Courtpix

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