The first casualty is the truth

Was the road out of bounds?

PRIVATE Tomás Walsh’s brother, Anthony, was also based in Bra’shit on the morning of the blast.

In the past, he has stated publicly that, as far as he was concerned, the dirt track where the mine was laid was supposed to have been off-limits to his company and other UNIFIL personnel.

However, the army has maintained the men were legitimately and properly sent up to the so-called Green Rooms area to collect stones. This was in order to complete the upper rows of 24 gabions needed to protect the company headquarters from loose Israeli fire.

That morning, this relatively menial task involved taking stone from walls along the roadside and loading it onto a large Renault truck driven by Pte Mannix Armstrong.

An active road, a short distance away, was in constant use. This served as the link between water tower at post 6-42 and the lookout 6-9b. It was part of the reconnaissance team’s Early Bird duties.

At a Y-junction after 6-42, the road forked off towards the abandoned 6-19 look-out.

Anthony Walsh’s recollection, and that of others who served with the 64th battalion, was that after this Y-junction, and as far as 6-19, the route was not in use.

The ongoing inquiry has been told by some of those interviewed that they were specifically instructed that it was out of bounds during briefings at the start of the tour.

The Irish Examiner understands that locals told the initial UN board of inquiry they did not use the road because of fears for their safety.

This concern was stirred by the reckless habit of Israeli sentries to indiscriminately aim their target practice across exposed ground, farming land and UNIFIL positions.

The dispute surrounding the road has lingered because of early assertions by the army that this was a regular supply route, which would have suggested the men were not in any increased danger.

Speaking in the hours after the explosion, the army spokesman in the Lebanon, Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Keogh, said the road was in active use.

In an interview released by RTÉ’s archive service, he said: “The route that they were travelling on is a route that is commonly used between positions. It is in general use daily.”

It has since been accepted in the Ciarán Murphy report, sought by the minister in 2003, that the route had “not been used for some time prior to it being used to gather rocks”.

However, this report and the earlier UN accounts said the road had been used for a number of weeks in advance of the attack.

The position the track served (6-19) had closed two years earlier. Noel McBride was stationed at 6-19 on the day the Irish moved out and has a diary entry recording it being closed off and blown up by the Israelis shortly afterwards.

Mr McBride said at this point it was placed out of bounds. Coincidentally, when he returned to Lebanon, he was with the first group sent up to pick stones on the Saturday before his colleagues died.

“That road was put out of bounds with the 60th battalion when the UN closed down 6-19. It was out of bounds to us when we arrived back in Bra’shit and when the rotations changed.

“As far as I am concerned, it was out of bounds and nobody told me differently. To the best of my knowledge, I never saw anybody up there,” he said.

Mr McBride said he believes that, when he was sent up to pick stones on Saturday, March 17, 1989, it was the first time anybody had been on the track during the first five months of the 64th battalion’s tour.

Pictures published for the first time by the Irish Examiner in June showed the poor standard of the track. Its overgrown state on the morning of the explosion supported the case that it was not in daily use.

In 2003, Ciarán Murphy said that it was difficult to draw conclusions given the fact that witnesses supplied by the families remember a blue sign with white writing in English and Arabic. This, they claimed, warned that the road was out of bounds for UN personnel.

It has also been said that locals were angry at the actions of the Irish, as the stones were part of irrigation protection and UNIFIL generally purchased such services from farmers to help stimulate the economy.

Mr McBride said that, on one of the first stone-collecting runs, a woman confronted his team and was told to talk to senior officers.

In his report, Mr Murphy said that officers from the 64th battalion, and those who followed in the next two tours, told him there was no such “out of bounds” sign in the Green Rooms area during their tours and it was not erected until much later.

Retired captain John Curley, who was the dead men’s second in command, told the Irish Examiner that he travelled the road regularly and that it was in regular use before the men died on March 21, 1989.

He said he both walked and drove along the track throughout that tour of the Lebanon and over the spot where the mine was laid. Therefore, he said, there was no decision made to begin using it again.

Mr Curley also said tasks such as collecting stones were required to keep people active and avoid the threat of cabin fever during a tense tour. He said there was no other motivation for sending the three men, and others in the days before that, to the area.

Ex-soldiers believe the status of the road on that morning lies in the logs of the Irish army of UNIFIL.

Did the Army underestimate the threat?

AN ISSUE of major dispute between the bereaved families and the army has been whether those who ordered the men to collect rocks along a dirt track should have been more vigilant to the threat of landmines.

Ahead of the recent High Court settlement — between Gráinne Armstrong, the widow of Pte Mannix Armstrong, and the state — the judge was told the three soldiers had been “sitting targets”.

Irish troops were under specific threat from the local Amal resistance leader, Mustafa Dirani, because Israeli forces had managed to bypass their checkpoint to sneak into south Lebanon and kidnap his predecessor, Jawad Kasfi.

This happened four months before the explosion and briefly led to the kidnap of three Irish soldiers, resulting in a souring of relations with local militias.

In spite of the direct and public threats to kill Irish soldiers, the army said its intelligence lowered the threat level for this type of attack.

In 2003 Captain Paul Connors of the army press office said that before March 21, 1989 the dirt track through the Green Rooms area, where the landmine was hidden, was considered safe.

He said there was no precedent to alert officers to the possibility of targeted roadside bombs against peacekeepers.

“The threat of landmines, especially in the terrorist role, was deemed to be low.

“[Landmines] were in Lebanon. However, they were in tactical minefields, in defensive minefields. The use of mines, as it was in 1989, in the terrorist role and specifically targeting Irish and UNIFIL troops, that had never happened prior to 1989,” he said.

However, UNIFIL recorded numerous attacks by the Amal and other groups, using such methods, including casualties to Irish personnel.

In August 1986, Lieutenant Aengus Murphy, who was part of an earlier bomb reconnaissance team, was killed when a mine was deliberately set off as he inspected a roadside wall on foot.

The man responsible for the killing was Kasfi, the leader of the Amal, and he had put the Irish team on notice a month earlier because they were dismantling his devices. But the UN documents reveal that not only were verbal threats made before Lt Murphy’s death but devices were exploded to intimate Irish soldiers.

Cables sent back to headquarters by UNIFIL revealed that two weeks before the 1986 explosion, a “warning” detonation, involving 25kg of explosives, was set off 10 metres in front of an Irish team.

These documents, obtained by the Irish Examiner, show that, in the month before Lt Murphy’s death, two large remote-controlled roadside mines were discovered by IrishBatt detection teams.

Separate documents show additional targeted roadside bombs were laid by Amal to target at French personnel in other parts of the area of operations.

In the summer of 1986, local representatives warned UNIFIL they would continue to use these methods on roads of their choosing.

A separate UNIFIL report, from July 1988, alerted HQ to a further, and noticeable, shift in the Amal’s tactics. This led it away from direct engagement with the Israelis to the laying of more tactical roadside bombs.

The 1988 report showed that, in the first six months of that year, exchanges of fire were still the most common type of confrontation between the Israelis and the resistance (61 incidents). Roadside bombs, though, were a strong second (27 incidents).

Internal observers said that because Amal was in a power struggle with fellow rebels Hezbollah, the two erstwhile allies lacked co-ordination for anything more elaborate than mines.

Colleagues of the three dead soldiers have claimed that, because of this tactical switch and the fact that the dirt track was close to an Israeli look-out, more prudent planning was required.

However, because Kasfi, the same man who orchestrated the killing of Lt Murphy, was kidnapped by Israel in December 1988, the army felt the expertise for roadside bombs no longer existed.

This was according to Commandant Martin Coughlan, who told an RTÉ True Lives show in 2001 that once the leader was captured, the army felt it could relax a little more.

However, soldiers who were based at Bra’shit in March 1987 said they were acutely aware of the threat.

Retired corporal Declan Gaffney, who had been sent to the same dirt track three days before the fatal explosion, said he had raised concerns about the dangers and the prospect of mines. However, he said he was told to follow orders.

Did the explosion occur in hostile territory?

ONE of the most consistent positions adopted by the army and its senior officers is that the explosion occurred outside the Israeli-controlled security zone.

This geographic detail would have decided whether or not the men were in hostile territory and governed the rules of operation. Simply, if the land was occupied by the Israeli army or its allies, there was an increased threat of roads becoming terrorist targets.

Immediately after the soldiers’ deaths, the assertion that they died outside the security zone was carried across national, regional and international media reports. In a News at One recording, supplied by the RTÉ Libraries and Archives, army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Keogh was adamant that it happened in a UNIFIL-controlled area.

He was asked specifically by presenter Shane Kenny to clarify where the mine was tripped and Lt Col Keogh replied:

“Correct, yes. It was north of this line that we talk about as the area controlled by Israeli forces, therefore, it was within UNIFIL AO [area of operations].” On the same day the Beirut-based United Press International was told by IrishBatt it happened “strictly” outside the security zone but sometimes the Israelis travelled in the area. However, maps produced by the UN four months earlier place the site well inside the security zone and underneath an Israeli look-out.

In 2002, the then Army chief of staff, Lieutenant General CE Mangan wrote to the brother of Cpl Fintan Heneghan and said the location of the road was important. He told Enda Heneghan the lack of Israeli activity in the area precluded the use of specialist mine-sweeping tactics. “The road was not generally subject of an ‘early bird’, as it was used exclusively by IrishBatt and, in general, ‘early birds’ were carried out only on routes used by the Israeli defence forces and the South Lebanese Army in the IrishBatt area,” he said.

This contradicts the view of the internal report of Mr Murphy a year later which said the early bird was not used on roads shared with the Israelis.

A cable sent from the UNIFIL’s force commander in 1986 specifically said that it should not have mattered. It was Irish practice to check everywhere.

In the gap between the different versions, the army has found space to explain why the road was not checked.

And the various accounts are difficult to reconcile given the absence of an accepted account on the security zone’s limits in 1989. So far, records on the withdrawal of Irish troops from the Green Rooms area near Bra’shit have not been released.

In reports of the then UN secretary general he said the security zone did not benefit from a definite border line. Instead it was “determined de facto by the forward positions of the IDF and DFF it includes . . . parts of the Nepalese, Irish and Finnish battalion sectors”.

UNIFIL maps from January 1989, used as the basis for the above graphic, show that the blast site was over a kilometre inside what UNIFIL felt to be the security zone.

They also show, in red dots, Israeli positions north of the track. A report in the Jerusalam Post after the attack quoted an Israeli official. He said that, because of the location, the IDF believed it was the intended target.

Earlier records of negotiations between UNIFIL and the Israeli commanders, obtained from UN HQ in New York, support this.

An internal report from a meeting of UNIFIL and IDF leaders in January 1987 outlined the stance of the two parties regarding two big trouble spots — one of those was Bra’shit.

At this stage, the IDF agreed to cede ground in exchange for the retreat of IrishBatt towards Bra’shit.

UNIFIL’s Force Commander offered to give up position 6-20, a couple of hundred yards from where the explosion happened a year later.

Major General Gustav Hagglund revealed that IrishBatt had already asked to be allowed withdraw from 6-20. Separate talks show UNIFIL, and Irish officers, worked with the Israeli to agree look-out location 6-41 further west and north of the Green Rooms.

Separately, there was widespread reporting of fatalities on the Israeli side in March 1988, after the UNIFIL retreat, in the village of Bra’shit and within 300 yards of an Irish post. This was reported on all sides as being inside the boundaries of the security zone.

The significance of the locations discussed at the UNIFIL-IDF meetings and reports of earlier attacks on Israeli forces is that they are consistent with the border on the January 1989 map, which placed the fatal mine inside the security zone and outside the land where the army said its soldiers died.

Should the area have been checked for mines?

AN internal military report, written in 2003, maintained it was not Irish or UNIFIL policy to send scouts to check every road for mines each morning. Records at the UN archives suggest otherwise.

“It has always been IrishBatt policy to sweep all roads and tracks for mines and explosive devices early each morning, even those roads and tracks jointly used by UN and IDF/DFF,” the United Nations cable from 1986 said.

This document has corroborated the views of some retired and serving soldiers who served with the C-company in Bra’shit in March 1989.

Corporal Fintan Heneghan, Private Mannix Armstrong and Private Tomás Walsh lost their lives driving on a dirt track which had not been checked for mines.

The 2003 report, and previous army statements, said it was possible for scouting exercises to consist of walking in front of a truck to check for command wires or booby traps.

This explicitly defined an “early bird” as an exercise carried out by recce teams, and was distinct from ad hoc administrative checks undertaken on lower grade roads by the soldiers using them.

Ciarán’s Murphy’s report said: “The military authorities have stated that, notwithstanding the use of the road for stone gathering, it was not a regular supply route and only regular supply routes were subject to an ‘early bird’.

“Alternative procedures applied in respect of other roads whereby two personnel would walk ahead of their vehicle making a visual examination,” he said.

It also dealt with the supposed distinction between areas exclusively used by peacekeepers and those where they were in competition with the Israelis.

“There were regular supply routes which were used by UNIFIL vehicles on a daily basis and these were the subject to a daily recce by UNIFIL forces referred to as an ‘an early bird’.

“In other instances, the use of a road by the IDF or DFF would indicate that a road was safe for use. SOP 247 indicates that this was also called an early bird. In all other cases it was a matter for the Company to ensure that tracks were cleared as required from time to time,” it said.

However, a number of soldiers who have given evidence to Frank Callanan’s ongoing inquiry which have said the early bird would have been considered mandatory.

John Curley was captain with the C company during the 64th battalion and its second-in-command.

He said, given the passage of time, it was impossible to reconcile different accounts.

However, he said there were some things about that day he was “very definite” on, and this included the policy of deploying early bird recce scouts.

“One thing I can state is that early birds were done religiously,” he said.

Asked if this meant he would have expected that all roads would have been checked by a designated recce team before being used by other troops, he said: “It was like putting on your pants in the morning, there were certain things you never forgot.”

Mr Curley said that, at times, resources meant “for administrative purposes that people had to do it themselves”. But he said this would not have been the norm.

“To keep the show on the road, at times we did things,” he said.

Mr Curley said he had to leave camp for a meeting on March 21, 1989, so did not know whether the recce team had searched the road.

In an RTÉ True Lives documentary from 2001, Commandant Martin Coughlan, who was out of camp at a meeting that morning but was the company commander, said the early bird was a policy but there was no dedicated mine detection team. He suggested the early bird team may not have even spotted the mine.

“We had what was called an early bird. Our recce section went out and checked the roads in advance of our troops using it.

“But you must understand that the roads were not roads as we know them. They were dirt tracks in lots of cases and there were lots of areas of, say, soil that were lifted during the night by moles and the likes, termites, and they would leave areas up to a foot wide along the road,” he said.

However, the question to be answered is not what a recce team would have detected but if they should have been deployed before the men left camp.

‘One of the dead men was already a father. Another was to become one in weeks’

Nobody is suggesting the Irish army was responsible for the deaths of three of its own men in March 1989 but this begs the question why they have been so inconsistent in explaining the circumstances in which the fatalities occurred.

The three soldiers, all young men from the north-west of Ireland serving in what was then the most dangerous few square miles of land in the world, were killed in a landmine attacked ordered by the interim leader of the anti-Israeli resistance — the Amal.

By that time, Irish peacekeepers had been in the area for 10 years, and 27 had lost their lives. There was an acceptance from the Irish people and the men that were serving that lives would be lost.

However, the Irish army has never been able to provide a satisfactory account of how these three men — Corporal Fintan Heneghan, Private Tomás Walsh and Private Mannix Armstrong — came into harms’ way.

Its account has satisfied a United Nations board of inquiry and an internal review ordered by the defence minister 15 years later.

But it has never eliminated the suspicions of the bereaved families who, from very early on, felt the army’s version of the time, location, rationale for the trip and assessment of the threat failed to stack up.

These families long suspected the men were sent on an unnecessary errand, without proper consideration of the dangers of the mission.

They believe that specialist landmine scouts should have checked the road first, and that the track where the mine was laid should have been considered off-limits. The army has said the opposite.

One of the dead men was already a father. Another was due to become one within weeks. It was the widow of this man whose quest for the truth ultimately cracked the army’s facade.

Gráinne Armstrong was not alone. Other family members, as well as those who served with the men, have probed army records and teased out accounts from those who were in Bra’shit during the 64th battalion.

However, it was Ms Armstrong’s 21-year-old legal claim for compensation that demanded the state prepare a defence and keep its files open.

Following two decades of delays, this was due to finally go to trial in March but the state, represented by the Defence Minister Alan Shatter, gave up the fight on the eve of it appearing in the High Court.

This happened after a witness, from within the ranks of the army, gave evidence to the Department’s legal team which cast doubt on two decades of assertions that all procedures and safety checks were followed.

Despite all of the inquiries and questions to have been raised prior to that, this man, as well as others key to the case, had not been interviewed before this year.

Following the collapse in the state’s case, Ms Armstrong went on to accept a settlement of €300,000, having been denied it for so long.

Within days, Mr Shatter had ordered a new inquiry on the grounds that, had the new details been available to previous inquiries, their findings may have been different.

He appointed senior counsel Frank Callanan to review the evidence, speak to any witnesses the families chose to put forward and produce a report by August 19.

According the Department of Defence, it has heard nothing back from Mr Callanan to suggest this deadline will not be met. The wait for its publication will be an anxious one.

Since the announcement of the inquiry, the Irish Examiner has spoken to many of those who were involved at the time and were interviewed by Mr Callanan. Others, including family members, have been reluctant to speak before the publication of the report.

Separately, Irish Examiner’s investigation has discovered previously confidential documents from the UN archives which cast shadows on the official version of events.

These support the view that the men should have benefited from standard policy to check all roads for landmines.

Yet more unanswered questions remain, such as why the army said there was no specialist landmine detection equipment available even though records show they were in storage in southern Lebanon at the time.

There has never been any explanation for why the army would appear to have fudged the circumstances surrounding the deaths of three of its men at the hands of terrorists. The worst they have been accused of is negligence in failing to appreciate the dangers or deploy standard anti-mine safety measures.

However, as the evidence presented here shows, there are still considerable gaps between some facts and the official account. There are also substantial contradictions between the statements of those serving at the time and the findings of previous reports.

This week, Mr Callanan will produce a report which will have to take a position as to whether, on balance, the army has given a fair and accurate account of the events of March 21, 1989.

But it may not be able to answer why the deaths of these men was subject to a cover-up that has caused such hurt on top of an already tragic loss of life.

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