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Decades After UN Peacekeepers' Murders, the Search for Justice Continues

I recently wrote a story for VICE about Mahmoud Bazzi, the man who abducted me and a UN peacekeeping officer 34 years ago in Beirut. He executed two other Irish UN...

by Steve Hindy
Jan 23 2014, 5:31pm

South Lebanon Army founder Saad Haddad, left, with the author. Photo courtesy of Steve Hindy

I recently wrote a story for VICE reporting that special agents of US Homeland Security told me Mahmoud Bazzi, last known to be driving an ice cream truck in Detroit, had applied for US citizenship. Mahmoud had abducted me and a UN peacekeeping patrol officer 34 years ago. He executed and killed two other Irish UN soldiers, and tortured and killed a third. Homeland asked if I would be willing to testify at Mahmoud’s immigration hearing. I didn’t hesitate.

My story struck a nerve with several Irish Army veterans who were serving with the nine-nation United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon when the abduction and killings occurred April 18, 1980. It felt good to know that I wasn’t alone, and that others wanted Mahmoud brought to justice.

Former Irish Army soldier Robert Masterson phoned me and thanked me for writing the story. He also put me in touch with former Private John O’Mahony, the man who Mahmoud shot at least twice. Private O’Mahony was freed along with me and two UN officers.  We carried O’Mahony away from the bombed-out school where the killings took place. We hailed a taxi and took him to Tibnin, Lebanon, where the Irish battalion of the UN as based. 

I remember sitting in the back of that taxi, comforting Private O’Mahony who was bleeding from bullet wounds in the stomach, leg, and foot. He repeatedly asked about his comrades, Privates Derek Smallhorn, and Thomas Barrett, who were taken away by Mahmoud and other members of the so-called South Lebanon Army (SLA), an Israeli-supported militia occupying a 10-mile-deep occupation zone on the Israel-Lebanon border.

Several hours later, their bodies were found. They had been tortured, then executed.

After my story, Private O’Mahony called me to also express his gratitude. He told me how US investigators asked him to testify against Mahmoud, and he agreed that Mahmoud should pay for what he did to Smallhorn, Barrett, and their families.

Masterson wrote a letter to Irish Minister of State Paschal Donohoe asking that the Irish government to pursue all possible avenues to also bring Mahmoud to justice.

“I am aware previous Irish governments have tried to and failed to progress this matter to a successful conclusion for all involved,” he wrote. “This atrocity and war crime has never been forgotten by either the families of the men and women who served this country in the defense forces. It remains an unbelievable situation that a known criminal can escape justice in a country renowned for its vigor in hunting down and prosecuting anyone who perpetrate a crime against US citizens or interests.”

Masterson told me he was also writing to the Minister of Defense, Alan Shatter, and other high officials.

In 2000, Irish Television did a special on the 20th anniversary of the killings. The producers tracked down Mahmoud to his home in Detroit and confronted him about the incident. He denied killing the Irishmen and said he had been forced to boast about the killings in the Lebanese media at the time. He claimed rebel Lebanese Army Major Saad Haddad, leader of the SLA, threated to kill him if he did not take responsibility for the killings.

I had repeatedly phoned Mahmoud’s home in Detroit. The woman who answered hung up without responding to questions. I called my contact at Homeland Security, Special Agent Perry Kao, and he was not available. After that television report, I testified to US Department of Justice investigators about the killings, but no action was taken against Mahmoud.

Mahmoud’s fate still remains unclear. No date has been set for Mahmoud’s immigration hearing. Kao said there was evidence that Mahmoud had entered the United States illegally, with false papers. If found guilty and denied citizenship, he could be deported, probably to Lebanon. Neither the US nor Ireland has an extradition treaty with Lebanon. Given the chaotic state of affairs in Lebanon today, it seems unlikely that Mahmoud could face justice there. 

Israel invaded south Lebanon in 1978 to drive out Palestine Liberation Organization forces. When the Israelis withdrew, the United Nations established the Interim Force to serve as a barrier between remaining PLO forces and Israel. Israel opposed the UN plan and instead armed and paid a private militia to patrol a ten-mile-deep zone in Lebanon. The militia was known as the South Lebanon Army. The SLA was allied with the rightwing Christian Phalange Party, an ally of Israel. Haddad was a Christian.

Mahmoud, a Shiite Muslim, was a member of the South Lebanon Army. In early April 1980, a young SLA militiaman was killed in a clash with the Irish battalion of the UN force. An Irish solider, Private Stephen Griffin, also was killed. Mahmoud was the brother of the young militiaman.

After the death of the militiaman, Haddad demanded the UN pay $10,000 blood money or turn over the bodies of two Irishmen to avenge the death of the militiaman. Mahmoud subsequently took the law into his own hands. I was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press at the time and happened to be with the Irishmen when the abduction occurred.

Who knows what sort of reception Mahmoud might receive in Lebanon. The Bazzi family is a large one in south Lebanon; but the whole southern region is now controlled by Hezbollah, an enemy of the right-wing Phalange Party and Israel.