Irish UN troops in al-Qaeda gun battle
Pressure mounts on Simon Coveney after 'new departure' for peacekeepers
Defence Minister Simon Coveney last night came under pressure to guarantee the safety of Irish troops in the Golan Heights after they were involved in a dramatic gun battle with Islamic militants.
His government colleague, Labour TD Willie Penrose, described overnight events on the Golan Heights as a "new departure" and said the defence minister "has to do everything to ensure their safety".
Mr Penrose, who resigned from Cabinet over the closure of an army barracks in his Westmeath constituency, said Irish troops were coveted for peacekeeping missions for their "bravery, skills and competence".
Yesterday's shoot-out was the first time members of the 130-strong contingent in the Golan Heights was engaged in combat amid growing concerns for their safety.
The Sunday Independent can reveal that troops fought their way through Islamic insurgent lines and freed trapped Filipino UN soldiers.
The Irish soldiers returned fire when fired on during the early-morning raid to free the 81 Filipino peacekeepers who had been under siege by the Islamists for three days.
Most of the Filipinos were freed in the daring rescue mission.
No Irish soldiers were injured in the gun battle.
The Irish troops are the first foreign peace-keeping force to directly engage the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic extremists which have carried out atrocities in Syria.
Details of yesterday's operation were under effective black-out as it is understood the Irish contingent was still involved in a stand-off last night with the Islamists as they undertook negotiations to rescue the remaining Filipino soldiers at Quneitra, close to the Syria-Israel border.
It is understood the Irish also attempted to rescue 43 Fijian soldiers who were captured by the Islamists on Thursday, but when they arrived at their camp they found it empty. The whereabouts of the Fijians is still unknown.
Mr Coveney said he could not comment on details of the Irish operations, but confirmed Irish soldiers "are engaged in a difficult and delicate operation".
The minister told the Sunday Independent last night: "They are safe. They have been tasked to do a dangerous mission and we have every confidence in their ability to do so with the utmost professionalism.
"There are over 1,200 soldiers on this UN mission. The Irish unit is a mobile armed unit and their job is to provide protection for those other units on this mission. They are often asked to do so in the most difficult situations."
Mr Coveney said it had been "a most difficult 48 hours" for the UN mission and would not comment on specific operational matters. However, he admitted there had been a "successful" operation early yesterday.
It is understood all available 130 Irish troops, backed up by soldiers from other parts of the UN mission headquarters in their base at Faouar, travelled under darkness yesterday morning to the Filipino and Fijian outposts which were overrun last Wednesday and Thursday.
The Filipino troops were besieged and unable to get through the Islamist lines until yesterday morning's Irish-led mission.
The Irish force, known as the Force Mobile Reserve, engaged the Islamists from the al-Nusra brigade after the Islamists opened fire first, senior military sources confirmed.
The Irish returned fire and were able to break through the Islamist lines and free the bulk of the besieged Filipinos at their base in Kuneitra. The exact number of freed Filipinos and the numbers still under siege was not clear last night.
The Irish base is in an area still under the control of Syrian government forces and safer than the isolated border posts overrun by the Islamists.
Senior military sources last night said that the Irish-led operation to free the other UN troops yesterday was assisted by the Israeli Army which has look-out posts on high ground overlooking the UN area of operations along the border.
Yesterday's dramatic shoot-out is one of the fiercest engagements involving Irish troops on foreign soil in over 30 years.
The 130-strong Irish contingent was sent to the Golan Heights in July 2013 to replace a much bigger, 340-strong Austrian force who were withdrawn by their government in the face of the growing threat from the Islamists. Croatian and Japanese soldiers on the UNDOF (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force) mission were also withdrawn by their governments.