Ireland only EU state not to evacuate troops from troubled African region

Peacekeepers’ weapons an obstacle to repatriation efforts from Goma region of DRC

File photograph of  Defence Force personnel training before deployment on UN duty. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

File photograph of Defence Force personnel training before deployment on UN duty. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Every European Union country except Ireland has evacuated peacekeepers from Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as the security situation in the region worsens.

Two Irish officers remain in the city in the east of the country despite the Government agreeing with the Defence Forces that they should be urgently evacuated.

The Government has been examining several options to bring them home, including chartering a private aircraft or sending the Government jet.

The Defence Forces General Staff has told the Government there are fears for the troops’ safety due to growing tensions in the country relating to the Covid-19 pandemic and underlying political instability.

The two officers live in a private apartment rather than in a secure compound, adding to fears for their safety.

Ireland is one of eight EU countries, including the UK, which contributes troops to the United Nation’s MONUSCO mission in the DRC.

Sources told The Irish Times all other EU countries have now pulled their troops out of Goma. The UK and Sweden have left the DRC completely, while Canada has left Goma but retains troops in the capital, Kinshasa.

Some senior military personnel have expressed frustration at the lack of progress in evacuating the Irish troops and believe the Government is concerned about how it could impact Ireland’s campaign for UN Security Council seat.

The Department of Defence has resisted the idea of sending the Government jet, citing its limited range; a return flight to Goma would involve seven refuelling stops, it said.

There is also concern about the cost of chartering an aircraft. It is estimated this would run to about €100,000.

Weapons

A major obstacle is bringing home the peacekeepers with their weapons. The main international airline still operating in the region, Air France, will not transport weapons on flights.

Regulations state weapons must come home with the peacekeepers if the mission is drawn down.

One of the options being considered by Government is replacing the troops rather than ending the mission completely. “This would overcome the weapons problem but it would also just put the new officers in harm’s way,” a source said.

Another option is having the officers expend all their ammunition at a shooting range before destroying the weapons. This would allow them to fly home commercially.

Ireland often asks other air forces to transport its troops, but this is not currently an option for the DRC mission, the Department of Defence has said.

Asked for an update this week, a department spokeswoman said it was “currently examining options to return these personnel”.

The dilemma has highlighted the Defence Forces’ lack of air transport. Unlike every other EU country, Ireland has no long-range military air transport.

“The Covid crisis and the current situation with Defence Forces personnel in the Congo have highlighted a serious capability gap for the State in terms of airlift. We can’t rely on the commercial sector for all of needs and some degree of sovereign capability is required in this area,” said Gerry Waldron, a former Defence Forces staff officer and director of the Slándáil National Security Summit.

Slándáil will host an online conference next Tuesday to discuss the issue and hear from ambassadors and air force officers from other small nations on their approach to air mobility.

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