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LAST IRISH SOLDIERS LEAVE LEBANON AFTER 23 YEARS OF PEACEKEEPING UN role; Duty in 'the most dangerous place in the world'cost lives of 46 men.


THE last Irish soldiers based in the Lebanon came home for good this week. Their return marked the end of the longest military mission in Irish history - a total of 23 years keeping the peace in the war-torn area.

Our troops had been in Camp Shamrock since 1978, overseeing the Israeli pull-out from south Lebanon. But Lebanon is a country often referred to as "the most dangerous place in the world" and not every soldier who travelled there came home safely to their friends and families.

Since first arriving there in 1978, a total of 46 men were killed on duty. Young soldiers Aonghus Murphy, 25, Fintan Heneghan 28, Tommy Walsh, 29, and Mannix Armstrong, 26, were four of those who lost their lives.

The men died in two related incidents - just three years apart. In an emotional tribute this week, parents, wives, children, brothers, sisters and colleagues remember the four and tell how the killings changed their lives. Aonghus Murphy was the first victimof the constant battle between Israel and its enemies.

Lieutenant Murphy , from Tuam, Co Galway, was from an army background - his father Kevin Murphy had been a brigadier general and his brother Conal was also in the army. An athletic type, he had a degree in PE and had captained the Galway Under 21 team to an All-Ireland final.

Aonghus was engaged to be married and he'd travelled to the Lebanon partly to raise finance for a new home. It was his first overseas mission. On August 21, 1986, Aonghus and three of his colleagues set out early to do a minesweep on the roads around their camp. At the time, the AMAL Believers Resistance had been planting roadside bombs along UN supply routes and these had to be safely removed.

The roadside bombs weren't meant for the Irish troops, they were intended to harm Israeli forces who operated inthe same general area. But eventually the AMAL Believers Resistance grew frustrated with the Irish soldiers for clearing away their devices. The head of the group, local icon Jawad Kafski, ordered the killing of an Irish soldier in order to teach the troops a lesson.

Early that morning, two of Kafski's men laid in wait for the Irish soldiers to come along and do their work. Gunner Liam Molloy, who was with Aonghus on the mission, said they went about the job just like any other.

He said: "We knew we were upsetting some people by removing the devices, but we had to do it.

"You always worried you'd be shot but you'd try not tothink too much about it." Captain Colin Moore, who was also there, said he remembered seeing Aonghus for the last time. "He stopped and crossed the wall and lifted his hand as if he had seen something. That was the last I ever saw of him.

"There was a big explosion and I was thrown backwards by the force. The whole place went dark with smoke and dust. "After about 30 seconds I got up and called out for Aonghus. I remember calling out but there was no answer." Aonghus' brother Conal told the programme: "I was in the Curragh Camp and had to be woken up to hear the news. "I was in shock, just stunned - I think I did everything on autopilot that day. "I've always felt especially bad for my mother losing a son. And my father always carried around a weight because he was the one who had encouraged us to go overseas.

"It's something our family will never get over. In fact, it is even too difficult for us to talk about it."

Kafski's men were caught by the Irish troops and arrested, but because of the complete breakdown of law and order in the area they were never charged. Kafski himself later admitted to an army official that he had ordered the attack, but he was never charged as UN forces had no judicial powers in the area.

However, he was later picked up - on Irish UN territory - by Israeli forces andsent to jail for 25 years. His comrades accused the Irish forces of collusion with the Israelis and swore revenge.

And it was this vengeance that resulted in the death of three Irish soldiers just two years later. After the revenge threat was made, the troops in Camp Shamrock were put on high alert. They manned their checkpoints behind barriers and took extra precautions with every single task.

After some months it seemed that peace had returned to the area - but not for long. Kafski's comrades had been biding their time. They struck on March 21, 1989.

Fintan Heneghan, of Ballinrobe, Co Mayo; Mannix Armstrong of Sligo and Tommy Walsh of Tubbercurry,Co Sligo, had been sent out to collect stones to fortify the post.

As they drove around in their white UN van, they either narrowly missed a planted device or it failed to go off. Tragically as they returned to camp the device exploded, killing the three men.

Mannix Armstrong's wife Grainne had been due to give birth to their first child when he was killed in action.

His brother John said: "I heard the news and just hoped and prayed it wasn't him." His sister Therese said: "Mannix was the big brother who was always there for you, he'd always spoil you. We'll never forget him."

Tommy Walsh was a married father of three young girls.His brother Anthony was in Lebanon with him when he was killed.

Tommy said: "I head one of the lads say 'Oh Jesus Christ, there's his brother and I knew Tommy had been killed.

"I'll never get over what happened - to this day I still think of Tommy as having gone away and not dead. "I always feel as if I left him behind in the Lebanon. As if I came home without my brother.

" Tommy's widow Pauline recalled how she heard the bad news: "As I walked home I saw army personnel at the door and I just knew... I just knew. "It was so hard."

The families' stories can be heard on TRUE LIVES - BROTHERS IN ARMS Tuesday, November 20, on RTE One 10.10 - 11.10pm.


TRUE COLOURS: Sgt. Willie Casey from Donegal raises the Tricolour at Shamrock; DEAD: Mannix Armstrong; DEAD: Tommy WalshDEAD: Aonghus Murphy; PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES: From the left, PRV Matthew Cannon from Athlone, LS Willie Duggan from Mallow, TPR Boris Melly from Longford and PRV Jason Keenehan from Limerick march out
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 18, 2001
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