Secret mission to withdraw Irish troops from Congo amid security concerns

Three officers flown out on an Air Corps aircraft following unrest and attacks on peacekeepers operating in central African country

A group of Irish Army officers has been withdrawn from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in a secret Air Corps operation amid increasing unrest and attacks on peacekeepers in the country.

The three officers on service with the United Nations’ Monusco mission were withdrawn on Friday afternoon following an operation which saw a PC-12 aircraft travel 7,000km to the troubled central African nation this week.

The soldiers were due to return to Ireland in the coming weeks as part of a standard troop rotation. However, this was moved forward amid the unrest there. There are no plans to replace them in the near future. They held observer roles and were not involved in frontline peacekeeping.

It is understood that continued Irish participation in Monusco, which involves some 18,000 peacekeepers and is responsible for protecting civilians and stabilising the country, has been put under review by Minister for Defence Simon Coveney. Tensions between the UN mission and the DRC government have been growing in recent weeks.

READ MORE

Thirty-six people, including four UN peacekeepers, were killed at the end of July and UN buildings were set alight during rioting in several cities in the east of the country. Much of the violence was concentrated around the city of Goma, where the Irish contingent were based.

There has been widespread criticism of the UN in the DRC for failing to protect civilians from armed gangs active in the east, including the M23 group. The UN intended to bring the mission to an end in 2024 but it is understood that this may be expedited in light of recent events.

The DRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs late last month demanded the expulsion of the Monusco spokesman, who it accused of making statements “not likely to foster a climate of mutual trust and serenity”. Tensions were exacerbated further on July 31st when UN soldiers opened fire on a group at a border post on the Ugandan border, killing three people.

The Irish withdrawal mission was launched, following extensive planning, on Tuesday when one of the Air Corps’ recently acquired PC-12 aircraft set out from Casement Aerodrome in Dublin with a five person crew. It made refuelling stops in Abruzzo in Italy, Cairo in Egypt, Khartoum in Sudan and an overnight stop in Entebbe, Uganda before flying the last leg to the DRC to collect the officers.

The Irish officers had eight weapons, which meant using a civilian flight was not an option.

The Defence Forces has faced difficulties in withdrawing troops from the DRC previously. In May 2020, the military sought permission to deploy the government jet to take Irish troops from Goma as a result of unrest in the region, but this was denied due to concerns about the jet’s reliability and range.

The 18-year-old aircraft is nearing the end of its service life and replacements are currently being sought. The Irish troops ended up departing on a commercial flight after leaving their weapons with friendly forces.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times