Irish officer to take deputy lead of UN Golan Heights mission

Brig Gen Tony Hanlon takes role after row between Indian and Filipino members

A member of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) looks through binoculars at the Syrian side of the Qunietra crossing from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. An Irish Army officer is to  become the deputy force commander of the under pressure mission. Photograph: Baz Ratner/Reuters.

A member of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) looks through binoculars at the Syrian side of the Qunietra crossing from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. An Irish Army officer is to become the deputy force commander of the under pressure mission. Photograph: Baz Ratner/Reuters.

Wed, Sep 3, 2014, 20:35

A senior Irish Army officer will become the deputy force commander of the under pressure United Nations deployment in the Golan Heights, Syria.

Brig Gen Tony Hanlon, logistics director at Defence Forces Headquarters in Dublin, is preparing to take up his post during a tense period for the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).

At the weekend, Irish troops were forced to rush to the aid of Filipino soldiers taking part in the 1,200-strong UN mission after they were trapped by al Qaeda-linked rebels in a post they were manning.

The Irish rapid reaction force managed to evacuate their colleagues on Saturday morning and escort them from the danger area after a gun battle with rebels, while a second group of Filipino troops surrounded by rebels at another posting managed to escape during the night.

A group of some 43 Fijian soldier disarmed and taken hostage by Syrian rebel forces last Thursday remain unaccounted for. The Government is now re-evaluating the role of Irish troops in the region.

The difficulties facing the mission, in particular the fighting late last week and over the weekend, have also resulted in an embarrassing row amongst some of the UN’s senior military staff on the mission.

Col Ezra James Enriquez, the Filipino chief of staff with UNDOF, has now left his post in Syria.

Reports from Manila suggest he has taken leave in protest at the UN’s Indian force commander Lt Gen Iqbal Singha’a order that two groups of Filipino troops who found themselves surrounded last Friday by hundreds of al Qaeda-linked rebels should surrender their posts.

The troops refused to do so, with one managing to get to safety of its own volition and another being rescued by some of the 130 Irish troops on the mission, but only after the Irish exchanged fire with the rebels.

Lt Gen Singha, under whom Brig Gen Hanlon will work as second in command on the mission, has been quoted in the Indian media saying the order to the Filipinos to surrender had been made in the interests of the safety of the Fijian troops being held by the same rebels.

He suggested that the refusal by the Filipinos to surrender had put the lives of their colleagues in danger. “They have defied orders at a time when we had negotiated a ceasefire with the rebels to ensure that all troops in the conflict area could exit,” Lt Gen Singha told India Today.

“The higher UN echelon as well as the Indian Army agrees with me that the decision was correct. It is an act of cowardice to desert posts especially when a delicate ceasefire was in place, They broke the chain of command and UN orders.”

There are 1,223 UNDOF peacekeepers from six countries, among them 130 Irish peronnel.

There has been a UN mission in the area since 1974 to help secure a peaceful buffer and demilitarised zone between Syria and Israel.

Before the Syrian civil war the region was quiet. But the UN troops have been increasingly dragged into civil war related fighting since last year.