US deports soldier murders suspect
A Lebanese man who is suspected of murdering two Irish soldiers who were serving with the United Nations 34 years ago has been deported from the US.
Ice cream seller Mahmoud Bazzi, 71, was returned to his homeland where he could ultimately stand trial for the abduction, torture and killing of the peacekeepers while serving with a Christian militia.
Privates Derek Smallhorne, 31 at the time and from Dublin, and Thomas Barrett, 30 and from Cork, were on duty with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) near the Israeli border on April 18, 1980 when they were captured.
Both were married with three children.
They had been in a three-vehicle convoy that was stopped by the South Lebanese Army (SLA) which was controlling the war-torn region at the time and in conflict with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO).
Tensions were high in the area on the day of the attack as the peacekeepers moved supplies to a border post.
Twelve days earlier clashes between the SLA and Dutch and Irish soldiers serving with the UN left an Irish man and a militia man dead.
The SLA had vowed to avenge the killing.
US Immigration officials confirmed Bazzi was deported from Detroit to Beirut today and handed over to Lebanese authorities after he admitted in court lying to obtain immigration status in America in 1994.
Rebecca Adducci, field office director for the US Enforcement and Removal Operations in Detroit said: "This removal should provide a stark warning to those who seek to game the system to obtain immigration benefits."
The deportation is the culmination of an enforcement action by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (Ice) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and Enforcement and Removal Operations (Ero) with assistance from Ice's Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Centre and Ice Detroit's Office of the Chief Counsel.
According to his admissions in immigration court, Bazzi entered the US in 1994 without the proper documentation and gave provided false information to secure permanent residence status.
Bazzi was put on a place to Beirut from Detroit yesterday and escort by Ero officers before being turned over to Lebanese authorities.
"This removal is the culmination of a sophisticated and meticulous investigation by several ICE components," said Marlon Miller, special agent in charge of HSI Detroit.
"(US Immigration and Customs Enforcement's) Ice is committed to ensuring the United States does not serve as a safe haven for individuals seeking to distance themselves from their pasts."
Ice's Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Centre investigates human rights violators who try to evade justice by seeking shelter in the United States, including those who have participated in war crimes and acts of genocide, torture and extrajudicial killings.
Since 2004, Ice has arrested more than 296 individuals for human rights-related violations under various criminal and/or immigration statutes and removed more than 650 known or suspected human rights violators from the US.
Two eyewitnesses, Associated Press journalist Steve Hindy and former UN peacekeeper John O'Mahony from Scartaglin, Co Kerry, have spoken publicly about how the abduction of soldiers Smallhorne and Barrett unfolded.
They were last seen alive in the back of a car driven by SLA militia men as it sped off after the troops were confronted and involved in shoot out.
Bazzi had originally been traced to the Detroit area by an RTE Prime Time investigation in 2000.
He was arrested last July in Dearborn, a community with a strong Middle Eastern population just outside Detroit, Michigan, where he has earned a living driving an ice cream van.
The peacekeepers' families pursued successive Irish Governments to pressurise the US authorities to act against Bazzi for years.
It is not clear if Bazzi will go on trial in Lebanon but after his initial detention US Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the "allegations of what happened in Lebanon factor heavily in our investigation and our efforts to remove him".
The Irish Government has been following developments in the Bazzi deportation case closely.
Mr Smallhorne and Mr Barrett are among 47 Irish soldiers who have been killed serving in the UN peacekeeping force since 1978.
Bazzi was also wanted in connection with the attempted murder of Private O'Mahony, witness to the abductions.
Simon Coveney, Ireland's Minister for Defence, said the deportation was a significant step in the families' quest for justice.
"It is an important day for the families and I wish to commend them for their continued commitment to securing justice for their loved ones," he said.
Mr Coveney said a decision on a trial is a matter for Lebanese authorities but offered Irish support.
"Obviously it is now a matter for the Lebanese authorities to investigate the case and it would be inappropriate for me to comment further on a case under investigation," he said.
"That said, today's development is very positive one. I would like to assure the families that I and the Irish Government stand ready to provide whatever assistance possible to the Lebanese authorities in progressing this issue."