DETROIT — An ice cream man accused of killing two Irish soldiers in 1980 was arrested Tuesday by U.S. authorities at his Dearborn home on an immigration violation that could lead to his deportation.
Mahmoud Bazzi, 71, will face a removal proceeding next week, said Khaalid Walls, a spokesman for the Detroit office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Walls said Bazzi was arrested without incident about 10:30 a.m.
Bazzi, who has made a living in the U.S. in part by selling ice cream from a truck in and around Detroit, is a native of Lebanon, but it is unclear where he would be sent if deported. Walls would not comment further.
Bazzi's arrest apparently stems from entering the country on a false passport about 21 years ago from the Middle East. Walls would not say whether Bazzi will also face charges associated with the torture killings of the two Irish soldiers in Lebanon.
At the time, the soldiers were assigned to a United Nations peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon near the border with Israel. The killings were said to be revenge for the death of Bazzi's younger brother in a skirmish with Irish troops about 10 days earlier.
Action against Bazzi had been requested for years from friends, family and supporters of the two slain soldiers, Derek Smallhorne and Thomas Barrett. They questioned publicly why Bazzi was permitted residency in the U.S., but said they never got a substantial response from U.S. officials until Tuesday.
Karen Barrett, who was 6 when her father was killed, burst into tears Tuesday when she talked about the arrest and her family's 34-year wait for action.
"We're in complete shock. My brain is a bit numb because I just can't take it all in," she said from the city of Cork. "I just can't believe it."
Most recently, several hundred retired Irish soldiers held a peaceful vigil on July 5 outside the U.S. Embassy in Dublin. The former soldiers, most of them wearing the signature light blue berets of the peacekeeping force, marched in formation to the embassy, serenaded the building with drums and bagpipe music, and held a moment of silence for their fallen comrades.
Bazzi said he does not speak English. But through an interpreter in two interviews in recent weeks with the Free Press, he said he was innocent. When asked whether he shot anyone, Bazzi replied: "No."
Last month, Walls told the Free Press he couldn't confirm or deny that immigration authorities were investigating Bazzi. Tuesday, Walls said the U.S. plans to deport Bazzi, but Walls would not comment further.
For decades, the Irish have supplied army troops to UN peacekeeping efforts. In the late 1970s, Lebanon was embroiled in a civil war and Israel invaded the south after it was attacked. Israel retreated when the United Nations interceded, installing a peacekeeping force near Israel's border. A Christian militia there, allied with Israel, clashed with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The peacekeepers were in the middle.
Privates Smallhorne and Barrett were shot and killed April 18, 1980. A third soldier, John O'Mahony, was shot twice but survived. The Irish trio were abducted by a band of Lebanese men associated with the Christian militia.
Two eyewitnesses — O'Mahony and an American journalist who also was abducted but was released — have both told the Free Press that Bazzi was the leader of the men who abducted them and took them to an abandoned school. Further, O'Mahony maintains that he saw Bazzi shoot him inside the school.
O'Mahony was left behind, wounded, as a car — with Bazzi allegedly at the wheel — sped off with the two other Irish soldiers. The bodies of those two soldiers turned up later in the day. They had been tortured and shot to death.
Shortly after the killings, Bazzi stood before reporters in Lebanon and claimed credit for their deaths on television, saying it was vengeance for the death of his brother. But in interviews last month, Bazzi said he lied to the cameras. He said he was not the killer but was forced to say he was by a militia commander who threatened to kill his family if he did not. Bazzi admitted to the Free Press that he was at the scene of the abduction but said he left before anyone was harmed.
Over the years, the media in Ireland periodically focused on the killings, which were a rare tragedy for Irish peacekeeping troops. But U.S. authorities offered little response. Fourteen years ago, an Irish news program tracked Bazzi to Detroit, and journalists confronted him on his front lawn. He admitted being there but professed his innocence.
The event has gotten little to no attention in the U.S. until recently when the abducted American, former Associated Press journalist Steve Hindy, published his eyewitness account. Hindy wrote that Homeland Security had contacted him last summer, saying Bazzi had applied for citizenship in the U.S. Officials asked Hindy and O'Mahony if they would testify against Bazzi.
Both said yes. Both said they never heard another word.