Belfast Telegraph

Irish troops put through their paces ahead of Syria trip

By Tom Brady

Irish peacekeeping troops will undergo a series of rigorous military challenges from today in preparation for their deployment next month on the Golan Heights in Syria.

The week-long mission-readiness exercises, which will be held mainly at the Glen of Imaal in Wicklow, are designed to test the 115-strong contingent after completing their training.

The contingent, led by Lieut Col Brendan Delaney, will act as the mobile reserve for the United Nations disengagement observer force (Undof) and will be called in as reinforcements as well as carrying out escorts and taking part in other operations.

The final go-ahead for deployment in mid-September was given after military chiefs studied a report from a reconnaissance party, who travelled to the mission area earlier this month to examine where the Irish were being posted and determine the requirements of the troops.

The United Nations requested the participation of the Irish soldiers on the Golan following a decision by the Austrian government to withdraw its troops as a result of a spill-over from the Syrian conflict into the region.

Irish troops are believed to have been chosen because of their known track record in the Middle East where they are acceptable to all sides and are regarded as "acting in good faith", according to a senior security official.

They have already filled a similar role with the Unifil mission in nearby Lebanon and also in Liberia.

The mandate for the Undof mission was renewed by the UN security council during the summer for a further six months.

The deployment is seen as a big boost to the Republic's Defence Forces on overseas missions as the numbers involved in Lebanon are being reduced from November when Finnish troops take over the lead role in their joint battalion there.

Some of the UN equipment -- such as the Mowag armoured patrol carriers, fitted with 12.7mm heavy machine guns -- being used by the Irish in south Lebanon will be transferred to the Golan Heights.

"The emphasis will be on mobility and protection rather than about firepower," one senior military officer said.

"It will take us back to the traditional peacekeeping role we played in the early days of the Unifil mission in south Lebanon where the troops will liaise with the locals and patrol through the communities," he added. Irish involvement in south Lebanon is being downsized from two companies to one, reducing the number of personnel from 330 to 180.

Undof is backed up by over 80 military observers from the UN truce supervision organisation's (Untso) group in the Golan and this currently involves 10 Irish officers.

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