Dáil Éireann - Volume 519 - 17 May, 2000
Written Answers - Overseas Missions.
Dr. Upton Dr. Upton
99. Dr. Upton asked the Minister for Defence if, in regard to the recent violent clashes in the Lebanon, he has satisfied himself that all adequate steps have been taken to ensure the safety of Irish troops serving with UNIFIL and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13690/00]
Mr. Shatter Mr. Shatter
101. Mr. Shatter asked the Minister for Defence the security situation in south Lebanon; the level of threat these have posed to the Irish  Defence Forces serving there and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13725/00]
Mr. M. Smith Mr. M. Smith
Minister for Defence (Mr. M. Smith): I propose to take Questions Nos. 99 and 101 together.
Since January 2000 there have been 78 firings close to UNIFIL IRISHBATT positions. The most serious of these incidents occurred on 21-22 April following an attack by armed elements on a de facto forces compound south of Haddathah. In the course of retaliation by the Israeli Defence Forces–de facto forces, IRISHBATT position 6-38 suffered eight firings close in the space of 18 minutes. One of these close firings was a direct impact by a mortar inside position 6-38 causing shrapnel damage to several accommodation units and another involved direct impacts by five rounds of heavy machine gun on the roof of an accommodation block inside position 6-38. At my request the Department of Foreign Affairs lodged a strong protest with the Israeli Ambassador on 3 May 2000.
The safety of Irish personnel serving overseas is always of paramount concern to me as Minister for Defence and to the Government. While absolute guarantees cannot be given with regard to the safety of troops serving in missions such as UNIFIL, it is my policy to ensure that Defence Forces personnel are adequately trained and equipped to carry out their mission. Troops selected for overseas service undergo a rigorous programme of training. Each post within the Irish UNIFIL Area of Operations has reinforced concrete bunkers specifically designed to withstand direct and indirect fire from heavy weapons. Rigorous operational procedures are in place to ensure that personnel occupy these bunkers in a timely fashion should the need arise. In such eventuality, minimum duty personnel remain in place, protected, to ensure that operational activity is observed and reported.
Physical security in the form of equipment and engineer works at posts and checkpoints is continually being improved. Irish troops are issued with a modern range of weapons and equipment.
I am advised by the military authorities that the current situation in South Lebanon is assessed as calm. The situation, however, continues to be volatile. The Defence Forces will continue to monitor the situation, particularly in the light of the stated Israeli intention to withdraw from South Lebanon by 7 July 2000. The emerging developments are being followed closely by the United Nations. Ireland and other UNIFIL troop contributing countries are considering, in consultation with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York, the implications of a number of scenarios attendant on Israeli withdrawal. My colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs recently met the UN Deputy Secretary-General, Ms Louise Frechette and senior officials of the UN Departments of Peacekeeping Operations and Political Affairs to discuss developments. The Minister emphasised the absolute priority the Government attaches to the safety  and security of our troops. He was assured by the Deputy Secretary-General that the UN shares our concerns for the safety and security of all UN personnel in South Lebanon.
The UN is engaged in contingency planning for the post-withdrawal situation and the Secretary-General's special envoy has just returned from a fact-finding visit to the region. He will report to the Security Council in the coming days and the indications are that UNIFIL will continue to play a crucial role in the period immediately following the Israeli withdrawal.
The UNIFIL mandate is reviewed by the United Nations Security Council every six months following a report by the Secretary General of the United Nations. UN Security Council Resolution 1288 of 31 January 2000 extended the mandate of UNIFIL for a further period of six months, i.e. until 31 July 2000.
On 4 April 2000 the Government approved the provision of a replacement contingent to UNIFIL comprising approximately 620 personnel all ranks for a six month period beginning 19 April 2000. The Government decision also allowed for preparations to be made for the selection, training and equipping of a further contingent of approximately 620 personnel all ranks to provide for the possibility of Ireland's continued participation in the UNIFIL peacekeeping force beyond July, 2000 in the event of a further extension of the UNIFIL mandate.
During my visit to the Middle East from 14-19 March, I reiterated my concern for the safety of Irish troops in the event of a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli Forces from the Israeli occupied area in South Lebanon at meetings with Lebanese Prime Minister Dr. Selim Hoss, and the Lebanese Chief of Staff and Commander in Chief of the Lebanese Army, General Michel Suleyman.
Dáil Éireann 519 Written Answers Overseas Missions.