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Irish troops gear up for new UN peace mission in the Golan Heights

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Defence Minister Simon Coveney reviews the personnel of the 46th Infantry Group at Costume Barracks, Athlone. Photo: James Flynn/APX.

Defence Minister Simon Coveney reviews the personnel of the 46th Infantry Group at Costume Barracks, Athlone. Photo: James Flynn/APX.

Defence Minister Simon Coveney reviews the personnel of the 46th Infantry Group at Costume Barracks, Athlone. Photo: James Flynn/APX.

Key changes to the structure of the United Nations mission on the Golan Heights has boosted confidence here that the next contingent of Irish peacekeeping troops will be deployed there.

The current 130-strong Irish contingent have been moved from their mission base at Camp Faouar in Syria to Camp Ziouani on the Israeli-controlled side over the past two days.

The transfer was confirmed by Defence Minister Simon Coveney, who said the Irish were the last troops to leave.

UN troops from India, Nepal, the Philippines and the Fiji Islands were also redeployed due to the threat posed by factions involved in Syria's civil war.

A Nepalese contingent will remain on the Syrian side at Mount Hermon in the strip of demilitarised land dividing Israel from Syria.

UNDOF (UN Disengagement Observer Force) was set up in 1974 to patrol the strip between the countries but lately has been caught between troops loyal to Syrian government and rebel forces.

Mr Coveney said the Irish were not going to get dragged into a civil war scenario where UN posts were under attack. "That is why sensible and correct decisions have been made over the last few days".

He acknowledged there were still some doubts about the deployment of the next contingent until after an international peacekeepers summit meeting in New York but he was optimistic and quite confident that the structural changes to the mission were managing risk in a way that was appropriate.

While he denied it was an evacuation, Mr Coveney admitted that "there are areas that would previously have been monitored by UN troops where they don't have a presence now, that is true".

Mr Coveney was in Athlone to review troops from the 46th Infantry Group who are due to travel in the coming weeks to the Golan Heights. The 130 troops, who come from 19 counties, have been undergoing preparatory training for the past 12 weeks.

Commanding officer of the 46th Infantry Group, Lt Col Dennis Harrington, described it as a privilege to lead his troops. "Our mission remains the same and we must remember it's been running for 40 years," he said.

Trooper Frank Black believes "the guys have to be a lot more switched on and a lot more prepared for what is going on" and he is looking forward to the mission. One downside is leaving his wife Eimear and eight-month-old daughter Farah.

"He's going to miss her first birthday and her first Christmas so that is going to be tough," said Eimear.

Irish Independent