Irish troops fired on by Syrian rebel units

Soldiers on UN mission in Golan Heights hit in first such incident in recent memory

Irish troops have been fired on by Syrian anti-government forces in the Golan Heights area. Photograph: Kate Geraghty/The Irish Times

Irish troops have been fired on by Syrian anti-government forces in the Golan Heights area. Photograph: Kate Geraghty/The Irish Times

Fri, Nov 29, 2013, 09:08

Irish troops serving on the United Nations mission in Syria have come under fire from anti government armed forces, with a number of their vehicles damaged in a morning ambush.

It is the first time Irish troops have been fired on in Syria and the first time an Irish vehicle with troops inside has been hit on any UN mission in recent memory.

While no serious injuries were reported, the attack will likely lead to a significant escalation in precautions and security measures around the Irish in the Golan Heights region.

It also raises the prospect that anti-government armed forces in Syria see the Irish and their colleagues on the UN multinational force as a legitimate target.

Minister for Defence Alan Shatter has said he had been fully briefed on the incident by Irish commanders deployed with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (Undof) and by the Head of Mission of United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (Untso), Ireland’s Maj Gen Michael Finn in Jerusalem.

“We know that our troops were deployed to the Golan Heights at a time of increased instability but that they are fully trained and equipped to undertake their important duties on behalf of the United Nations,” he said.

“They remain fully committed to this task.”

Mr Shatter is attending high level meetings in Israel and Ramallah on the last day of his trip to the Middle East.

Yesterday morning’s incident occurred at around 9.50am local time at the village of Ruihinah, about 25km from the Irish camp in the Golan Heights.

The Irish Times understands the Irish troops were on a routine mission transferring personnel working for the UN between two locations.

Some 36 Irish personnel were traveling in five MOWAG armoured personnel carriers when the convoy came under fire by what is believed to have been small arms.

A number of the vehicles were hit by rounds of fire and some damage was also caused to a tire on one MOWAG. It is believed the wheel was damaged by an improvised explosive device, which raises the prospect the incident was a carefully planned ambush.

The Irish returned fire with 12.7mm heavy machine guns mounted on their vehicles, though it is unclear if that fire led to any casualties.

All of the Irish personnel were inside the five MOWAGs at the time and while one soldier sustained soft tissue injuries when taking cover as the convoy first took fire, his injuries are not serious.

After returning fire to ensure their own safety and that of their equipment, the Irish withdrew in their vehicles and returned to camp around 45 minutes away.

There are currently 119 Irish troops serving in Syria with the UN Disengagement Observer Force (Undof).

The 1,000-strong multinational force is an observer mission that monitors the cessation of hostilities between Israel and Syria. It is now operating in a much more volatile region because of the civil war within Syria.

Irish personnel were caught up in fight between Syrian armed forces and anti regime fighters on November 6th, with artillery shells falling twice in one day close to vehicles the Irish were traveling in.

However, on that occasion the UN and Defence Forces were satisfied the Irish were not targeted. The convoy simply withdrew and returned to camp with no injuries or damage to vehicles as the artillery fire fell several hundred metres from the Irish armoured vehicles.

Yesterday’s incident appears to be different in that the UN vehicles the Irish were in were targeted and deliberately hit. It is the first time Irish troops based on a UN mission have had to return fire since a patrol was fired at in Chad by rebel forces in June 2008.

On that occasion an Irish position was fired at, but was not hit and the fire that was returned were effectively warning shots.

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