Sunday 24 September 2017

Chemical attack fears played down

Alan Shatter has played down fears of a chemical attack on Irish peacekeepers in the Middle East.
Alan Shatter has played down fears of a chemical attack on Irish peacekeepers in the Middle East.

Defence Minister Alan Shatter has ruled out the possibility of Irish peacekeepers being targeted in a chemical attack during their upcoming mission to the Golan Heights.

As 115 troops prepare for deployment to the heavily militarised Syrian border despite the deepening civil war and threat of a missile strike from the US, the minister said he was confident they would safely complete their tour.

He said a potential chemical attack on the Irish troops was not something he has contemplated, but insisted their safety was a "primary concern".

"As in every mission, there will be continuous assessment. We know we're in a very volatile region. We're in a country with enormous difficulties," Mr Shatter said.

"We are obviously very conscious of the volatility in the area and the region."

He insisted the men and women of the 43rd Infantry group had undergone rigorous training and would have the best kit and protection available to them.

Mr Shatter reviewed the troops at Cathal Brugha barracks in Dublin ahead of their gradual deployment to the Golan Heights throughout September.

He confirmed Defence Forces chief of staff Major General Conor O'Boyle had assured him the soldiers had undergone rigorous training and that extensive risk assessment had been carried out.

There have been international calls for US military action on President Bassar Assad's regime following the use of chemical weapons in Damascus earlier this month.

Mr Shatter said a repeat of such an attack involving the 43rd Infantry was not expected.

"I'm not anticipating that that will happen," he said said.

"We know a dreadful atrocity was committed in Syria. Different numbers are being given as to the number of people who died. It's quite clear that hundreds of men, women and children have died in a chemical attack."

The minister insisted the Irish peacekeepers' role will be purely observational and that they will have no involvement in the civil war.

The troops have been training in the Glen of Imaal in Wicklow in advance of their deployment to the disputed border between Syria and Israel.

This has included rigorous drills on how to deal with a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) incident.

The soldiers will serve as a mobile reserve for the UN disengagement observer force (Undof).

The operation is to maintain a demilitarised zone between areas controlled by Syria and Israel since the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

The troops will be called in as reinforcements as well as taking part in regular patrols and escorts.

Ireland was asked for troops after Japan, Croatia and Austria withdrew soldiers amid concerns the Syrian civil war would spill into the Golan territories.

Shots were fired on Austrian soldiers back in June prompting their withdrawal, while Syrian officers travelling with the UN patrols have been abducted by rebels and executed.

Commanding officer of the 43rd Infantry Lieutenant Colonel Brendan Delaney confirmed his troops would be evacuated from the Golan Heights region in the event of a chemical attack.

The father-of-three, who has served the Defence Forces for 33 years, said an arrangement was already in place with the Israeli government to allow troops across the border.

"We don't intend working in a chemical environment," Lt Col Delaney said.

"If the safety of the troops is compromised, we evacuate."

Meanwhile, one of only four female troops to be deployed said she knew what she was signing up for when she joined the army.

Corporal Claire Powell, 32, from Dublin, said the safety of soldiers could never be fully guaranteed.

"There are elements of danger in all places we serve," she said.

"Even in training, we fire with live weapons all the time. We're confident in our training and in the equipment we have. This is what we joined the army to do."

Press Association

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