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Troops on standby for flight to war-torn regions

Irish troops taking part in the EU Nordic battlegroup may be sent into action in strife-torn Mali or South Sudan next year.

The 180-strong Irish contingent will play a key role if the battlegroup is deployed for the first time as they have been put in charge of gathering intelligence, which will involve overt and covert surveillance by specially trained teams.

The teams, who include crack snipers, will then feed the raw information they have gleaned back to their headquarters to be processed into intelligence and studied by analysis cells.

This is the fourth time that personnel from the Defence Forces have been involved in a battlegroup since 2008.

They will be on stand-by and ready for call-up at a minimum four days notice, from January 1 to June 30.

Up to now, none of the battlegroups has been deployed by the EU, despite calls in the past to be sent as a rapid response group to a crisis-hit area.

However, Sweden, which will act as the lead country in this battlegroup, is exerting huge pressure at political level for deployment.

Several countries are anxious that the group should be deployed to an African country, such as Mali or South Sudan.

A decision on sending in a battlegroup will be taken by the defence ministers from the 28 EU states. The position likely to be adopted by the ministers is not yet clear.

However, the senior officer in charge of the battlegroup concept in the Defence Forces, Lieut Col Maureen O'Brien said: "Our personnel have undergone intensive training over the past year and are ready for a speedy call-up, if required.

"Whether or not that becomes a reality is not a matter for the military," she pointed out.

Under the battlegroup concept, the type of mission ranges from peacekeeping to peace enforcement and humanitarian crises.

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The Irish can be tasked to any conflict region within a 6,000-mile radius of Brussels and will operate alongside 1,900 Swedes with the rest of the group coming from Finland, Norway, Estonia and Lithuania.

From the start of the new year they will be on stand-by at their home base at Collins barracks in Cork and have the capability of being on site in a crisis area within 10 days of an EU decision to deploy.

If they are called out, the troops could be involved in an humanitarian mission but the contingent also possess decisive military capabilities.

They have trained and are prepared for both sides of the operational spectrum.

The Irish are in charge of the ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) unit.

A total of 154 Irish troops will be attached to ISTAR, alongside 24 Swedes and five Estonians and the unit is under the control of Lieut Col Paul Carey.

He explained that in the earlier battlegroups, Defence Force involvement was confined to counter IED (improvised explosive devices) duties.

Their weaponry includes 12.7mm heavy machine guns, Javelin anti tank missiles and sniper rifles.

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