In addition to the three Irish UNIFIL soldiers, the convoy was comprised of two unarmed officers from UN Observer Group Lebanon – Major Harry Klein, an American, and Captain Patrick Vincent, a Frenchman – and two members of the Associated Press – journalist Steve Hindy, an American, and Armenian-Lebanese photographer Zaven Vartan.
At the first checkpoint, the convoy was to be met by a Haddad lieutenant named Abu Iskandar who would ensure their safe passage to the village of Maroun Al-Ras. As O’Mahony remembers, and as Steve Hindy reported at the time and recently described again in an article for Vice magazine, Iskandar was not there but the convoy was waved through by SLA militiamen wearing Israeli uniforms.
Just outside the village of Betit Yahoun, a group of gunmen – some in uniform, others in civilian clothes – emerged from either side of the road and surrounded the trucks, ordering everyone in the convoy to step outside. The Irish soldiers were disarmed. A Peugeot 404 drove up and from it emerged a Lebanese man, about 30-years-old, wearing a black shirt – a sign of mourning – and speaking in rushed Arabic about his brother.
O’Mahony, the two UN officers and Hindy were packed into his car; Barrett, Smallhorne and Vartan, the photographer, into another. They were driven a short distance to an abandoned schoolhouse, where they were told to state their nationalities. All except for Vartan were then taken to a boy’s restroom, where they were again asked to repeat their nationalities.
As Hindy wrote in the story he later filed with AP, “Two teenage gunmen stood guard at the doorway. . . . ‘American, good, French, good,’ said the two teenagers. Klein, who speaks passable Arabic, told the Irish to stop smiling. We all stopped smiling.”
The man in the black shirt reappeared, carrying one of the Irish soldiers’ guns, and separated O’Mahony, Barrett and Smallhorne from the rest of the group. As O’Mahony explained, “’Twas easy to pick us out because we were with the UN but we still had our Irish badges. So he took the three of us away and escorted us down another flight of stairs to the basement. About halfway down the landing he opened fire on us. I happened to be shot and I fell down, but the two other lads were able to make a run for it. That was the last I saw of them.”
By the time Barrett and Smallhorne got outside, gunmen were waiting for them. As Klein and Hindy tended to O’Mahony inside the schoolhouse, more troops drove up. Vincent and Klein demanded that the Irish soldiers be returned to the group, but instead Barrett and Smallhorne were forced into the Peugeot 404 and driven away by the man in the black shirt. Hindy told IrishCentral that to this day he can still see the scared, plaintive look on Barrett’s face as the car sped off.
Everyone else was free to go. They quickly took O’Mahony, who was bleeding from his wounds, to the nearby town of Bint Jbail. Hindy wrote, “We spotted some Israeli Army officers in the streets and decided it would be safer to transfer him to a taxi before driving back to the Irish UN headquarters in Tibnin. Zaven followed in a UN jeep. When we got there, Irish commander[s] and UNIFIL commander Ghanaian General Emmanuel Erskine were waiting for us. At the Irish headquarters, a helicopter flew O’Mahony to a UN hospital in Naquora, Lebanon. Klein immediately contacted the Haddad and the Israeli military command to demand the Irishmen’s return.”
A few hours later, they heard that the bodies of Barrett and Smallhorne had been found near Bint Jbail. They had visibly been tortured and then executed, one shot in the back of the head, the other in the front of his neck.
Hindy and Vartan made it back to the AP office in Beirut, where Hindy was able to file an account of the kidnapping. The AP bureau in Tel Aviv later edited his story to state that the attack had been carried out by “Arab villagers” rather than “Israeli-backed militiamen.”
News of the attack made the front page of the New York Times and the Irish Times the following day. Coverage continued as the bodies of Barrett and Smallhorne were laid to rest. John O’Mahony arrived back in Ireland on April 23, in a stretcher.
After the initial shock, blame began to circulate. Ireland and UNIFIL largely blamed the Israelis and Haddad. Then-Taoiseach Charles Haughey described the attacks as “wanton murder.” Garret FitzGerald, who would succeed Haughey in office said, “[t]he activities of the illegal forces and their continued aggression against the UN forces in the Lebanon have become an intolerable affront to the civilized world. The government should seek the immediate support of our ECC [European Central Council] partners, the United States, and other friendly countries to secure effective action in support of the UN forces in the area and to insist on the cutting off of all aid and assistance by Israel to this illegal force.”