UN asks Ireland to keep troops in Liberia


LIBERIA: Ireland's role may be extended in a major United Nations peacekeeping mission in Liberia after the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, wrote to the Taoiseach urging him to reconsider Ireland's planned withdrawal at the end of the year, The Irish Times has learned.

Mr Annan wrote to Mr Ahern last week to request that Ireland's 430-strong quick reaction force troops in Liberia be maintained there for at least an additional six months, to June 2007.

Mr Annan is understood to have thanked the Taoiseach for Ireland's role in the quick reaction force in Liberia since November 2003. However, he also emphasised that the country remained volatile, with similar situations in neighbouring Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.

The Irish troops in Liberia have been partnered with soldiers from Sweden. Together the two countries make up a 670-strong force. It is on call 24 hours a day to respond to any flashpoints that may develop in any part of Liberia.

It is regarded as the most professional force on the United Nations Mission in Liberia, which is made up of 15,000 troops from all over the world.

The quick reaction force is on standby to travel to the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown, to provide security for the war crimes tribunal taking place there.

The Irish have been asked to provide a force that could evacuate 11 war crime suspects and the staff working at the tribunal if the security situation deteriorates.

While on a visit to the Liberian capital, Monrovia, a fortnight ago, Minister for Defence Willie O'Dea said that when Sweden and Ireland withdraw at the end of this year or early next year, the Nigerian army would most likely form the basis of a new quick reaction force.

However, Mr Annan now believes the UN needs more time to organise a replacement force and he has urged Ireland and Sweden to stay on.

After a meeting with the new Liberian president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a fortnight ago, Mr O'Dea did not rule out Ireland playing a long-term role in the maintenance of peace in Liberia, where the second of two civil wars was brought to an end in 2003.

He envisaged the Irish Defence Forces making available to the Liberian government a small number of military specialists to advise the country's military. However, this may change in light of Mr Annan's request.

Informed sources have said Irish soldiers could remain in Liberia only if the Swedes also agreed to stay.

Mr O'Dea will discuss the matter with his Swedish counterpart in early May at a meeting of EU defence ministers in either Brussels or Vienna.