Heavy fighting has broken out between rebel forces and Chad government and French troops in the part of central Africa where Irish troops are due to start arriving in the New Year. They are due to go there as part of a European Union humanitarian mission.
The mission by the Army is shaping up to be one of the most difficult undertaken since the UN mission to Congo in 1960. The multi-nation force, led by France, is to be based in the town of Abeche on the Chad/Sudan border, where many of the estimated 400,000 refugees from the Darfur region have been seeking asylum and aid.
Last Wednesday, the Chad government announced that "several hundred" rebels had been killed in fighting near the town of Abeche. It appears that the rebels had been attempting to take control of the town prior to the arrival of the 4,000 strong EU Battle Group force.
The Chad government said the rebels had been confronted about 60 miles east of the town where most of the heavy fighting took place. A small group of French troops already in the area were also reported to have taken part in the fighting.
A contingent of 50 members of the Army Ranger Wing will provide the spearhead for the contingent of 400 Irish soldiers travelling to the region.
The mission will be the most expensive undertaken by the Defence Forces, with Minister for Defence Willie O'Dea announcing in the Dail on Thursday night that an additional €57 million is being allocated to the Defence budget for next year to cover the cost of the 12-month mission.
Most of the troops will have to be transported by aircraft as Abeche is almost 2,500 miles from the nearest seaport of Doula in Cameroon on the West African coast. Logistics experts are examining the possibility of moving heavy equipment by sea but the sea journey will take almost three weeks and the journey overland at least another two weeks. The overland journey is also only possible if it is not raining, as for much of the journey there are no roads.
Tension in the Abeche region has been heightening in recent weeks, according to report from Chad. Last year the town was briefly overrun by rebels but they were fought back and the town re-taken by the Government. The rebels largely operate from inside Sudan, where the government-backed Muslim militias have been carrying on a genocidal campaign against native, non-Muslim people.
The Irish contingent are to be the first to establish the base at Abeche and will then be supported with further troop and air support mainly supplied by France, which will make up around half of the 3,700-4,000 troops due to travel to the area. The force commander, Lieutenant-General Patrick Nash, last week warned EU Commission members that the mission needed more helicopters and medical facilities than presently planned.