EU Chad mission faces 'difficult period' - Nash


REBEL GROUPS in the border area between Chad and Sudan have increased their capabilities in recent months and that could lead to a "very difficult" period for the EU mission deployed to the region, its Irish commander, Lieut Gen Patrick Nash, has warned.

Some 400 Irish troops are participating in the 3,500-strong mission known as EUfor which has a UN mandate to help protect civilians and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid in Chad's restive eastern borderlands.

In an interview with The Irish Times, Lieut Gen Nash said recent intelligence suggests that while various political initiatives are taking place between the main actors in the region, rebel movements and government forces have increased their presence on both sides of the border.

"We have to be prepared for any eventuality. There is a huge build up of militarisation in all areas. We have seen a big increase in capabilities and the building up of armaments and equipment plus training capacities of rebel groups on both sides . . . It could be a very difficult period in the next number of months," he said.

"From a force protection perspective, we will be taking all possible measures within our means and capabilities, and I am quite happy that we have the necessary resources to defend ourselves if things got really serious."

The Irish Timeshas learned that a number of incidents have caused concern in recent months, including one in which Belgian special forces were fired on by Sudanese forces in the border area, and several occasions on which Sudanese aircraft were observed carrying out night reconnaissance flights just inside the Chadian border.

Lieut Gen Nash acknowledged these incidents were a matter of concern, adding that Brussels had taken them "very seriously".

On the incident involving Belgian troops, he said: "We are very confident in our position. Formal reports have been sent to Brussels in relation to the actual location of our troops on the day and we are prepared to stand over our position." Overall, he said he was "relatively happy" with EUfor's performance so far, with the operational phase proceeding "much better than anticipated".

The presence of EUfor troops has "brought a certain deterrence factor" to the area of deployment, he believes.

"With 3,500 troops in an area almost the size of France, we have not been able to compel everybody to behave in a certain fashion and it was never realistic to expect that. When I go into IDP camps and refugee camps, they say things have got better, but there is a long way to go and, yes, that is fair but other actors must work with us. [EUfor] is a bridging mechanism and we are quite happy with what we have achieved."

EUfor's mandate is set to expire on March 15th. Last month UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon called for 4,900 UN troops to be deployed to replace it. The UN force would have a similar mandate to help address the security situation in eastern Chad.

Minister for Defence Willie O'Dea has indicated Ireland is likely to participate in the proposed UN force, and Lieut Gen Nash hopes other EU member states will follow suit.

"I have been at pains to impress upon EU troop-contributing nations to EUfor that they should 'rehat' to the UN for a period to facilitate the seamless transfer of authority and not have any security gap. That is looking quite positive at the moment.,

"The big issue for us at the moment is planning for that follow-on force . . ..

From the outset, EUfor commanders have stressed the importance of establishing the mission, its credibility and impartiality, both with the Chadian government and rebels in the region.

"It has been a constant battle for us to keep our impartiality," said Lieut Gen Nash. "We have held that line, but it does not suit everybody all the time. It has been a very, very difficult and delicate balance to keep."

He is realistic about what EUfor was capable of achieving during its deployment, given the multitude of problems, from ethnic tensions to banditry and rebels fighting to overthrow President Idriss Deby, that make eastern Chad such a volatile region.

"We were never going to solve the problems of eastern Chad in the 12 months of our deployment. The military can only contribute to a solution, there are a lot of other actors who must play their part, not least the host government which has a major responsibility."