Dáil Éireann - Volume 651 - 10 April, 2008

Priority Questions. - Overseas Missions.

Deputy Brian O’Shea asked the Minister for Defence the latest position in regard to the deployment of Irish troops to serve with the United Nations mission to Chad; the progress made with regard to supplying the contingent; the number of troops in place to date; the timetable for the deployment of the remainder of the contingent; the most recent information available on the security situation in the region; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13568/08]

Deputy Jimmy Deenihan asked the Minister for Defence if all arrangements are in place for the deployment of Army personnel to Chad, including transport arrangements, helicopter backup, water supply and so on; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13736/08]

  Deputy Tom Kitt: I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 and 4 together.

The European Union military mission to Chad and the Central African Republic, EUFOR TCHAD/RCA, established under the authority of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1778 (2007), was formally launched by the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 28 January 2008. Ireland will be the second largest contributor to the mission, with 450 personnel. The aim of the mission is to protect civilians in danger, particularly refugees and internally displaced persons, facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid and protect UN personnel.

The mandate for this mission is robust. It will be conducted under Chapter VII of the UN charter, allowing the use of all necessary force to ensure the success of the mission. The EU force is authorised to support the UN and to take all necessary measures within its capabilities and its area of operation to fulfil its functions. EUFOR is committed to conducting its operations in a neutral and impartial manner.

A total of 83 Defence Forces personnel are currently serving with EUFOR: 18 at the operational HQ in Paris and 65 in Chad, including 53 personnel of the Army Ranger Wing. A ship containing all the heavy equipment of the Irish battalion, which departed Dublin on 26 March 2008, is scheduled to arrive at Douala port, Cameroon, on 12 April. A team of 23 Irish personnel has deployed from Ireland to Douala port to receive the ship on its arrival. This team will organise the movement forward of the Defence Forces’ cargo by road, rail and air to the headquarters of the Irish battalion at Goz Beida in eastern Chad, a distance of some 2,700 km.

[803] The advance group of the 97th infantry battalion, comprising 177 personnel, will fly to N’Djamena at the end of April and will move forward to Goz Beida on an agreed schedule. The advance group’s primary mission is to construct the Irish camp in Goz Beida. The main body of the 97th infantry battalion is scheduled to arrive in Chad towards the end of May. The Netherlands will deploy a contingent of 60 personnel with EUFOR, which will be fully integrated into the Irish battalion.

Because of the nature of the operation, the mission area and the environment, force protection will be a key consideration. The Defence Forces will deploy a full range of force protection assets, including armoured personnel carriers. The military authorities have indicated that, while the level of risk is consistent with any operational deployment into a troubled African state, it is one which the Defence Forces have the capability to manage.

There will be a sufficient water supply available in Chad to meet the needs of the Irish contingent. I have been informed that the Defence Forces have already tapped two wells in the area of operation. These wells can produce 3.2 cubic metres of water per hour. This water supply is sufficient to meet the needs of 700 personnel. The Defence Forces also have a purification system in place that will be used to treat all water before use and for the recycling of used water. In addition, an ample supply of bottled water will be available.

In early February and on 1 April, fighting took place between Chadian forces and rebels. EUFOR personnel were not involved in these incidents. However, the situation in the Republic of Chad is currently calm.

Key enablers, in particular tactical and medevac helicopters and medical facilities, are currently in place thus allowing the mission to proceed. Having being satisfied that the capabilities required to support EUFOR’s main force deployment had been established, Lieutenant General Nash, the EUFOR operation commander, declared that the mission had achieved initial operational capability on 15 March this year. This marked the start date for the 12 month duration of the operation as set out in UN Security Council Resolution 1778.

When the full EU force is deployed, it will comprise 3,700 personnel. A total of 1,800 EUFOR personnel are already deployed in Chad. This now affords the operation commander and his staff the opportunity to plan for the follow-on deployment of three multinational battalions, including the Irish battalion. The mission is planned to reach full operational capability by mid to late May.

  Deputy Brian O’Shea: I also extend my best wishes to the Minister, Deputy O’Dea, and I trust he will make a full and rapid recovery. However, the Minister has a very capable deputy and I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt.

  Deputy Tom Kitt: I thank the Deputy for his remarks.

  Deputy Brian O’Shea: Can the Minister of State assure the House that the MV Zeranat, which is on its way to Douala in Cameroon, is not operating under a flag of convenience? Is the crew of that ship engaged under proper pay and conditions? I understand the incident that took place in N’Djamena was a political one and therefore that Irish troops would not be involved. Last month, the Minister, Deputy O’Dea, informed us at question time that it was unlikely that such an incursion could be mounted again before the end of the rainy season, which begins in June. Will the Minister of State provide us with an update in that regard? Is that still the security advice available to the Department, that no such incursion can take place before the end of the rainy season? Apart from that, is there any indication whether it is any more likely that it can happen after the rainy season?

[804]   Deputy Tom Kitt: I can assure the Deputy as to the pay and conditions on the ship because that is part and parcel of the standards that apply in this situation. With regard to the recent incidents in Chad, in early February and on 1 April, fighting took place between Chadian forces and rebels. EUFOR personnel were not involved in these incidents. EUFOR has no role in the protection of the sovereign territory of Chad. Incursions by rebel forces are a matter for the Chadian authorities and do not fall within the remit of the EU mission. An awful lot of work is currently going on with EUFOR conducting an information campaign within its area of operations. The purpose of the campaign is to promote EUFOR’s credibility, will and capability to fulfil its mission. The campaign is being conducted by means of leaflet hand-outs and radio advertisements. Clearly, much good ground-breaking communications work is going on at present. To answer the Deputy’s other question, it is all being done in the context of preparatory work, making ourselves familiar with the local community, ensuring that everybody sees Irish emblems, such as Irish flags flying on vehicles, using radios and leaflets, and using our military information officers to get the message across.

I noted the Deputy’s comments on the rainy season and I accept that he is correct in that regard. Full deployment will be achieved by the end of May. Prior to full deployment, my officials are anxious to ensure a full briefing for the spokespersons present here.

  Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: In view of Lieutenant General Nash’s appearance on the Late Late Show, surely he could also appear before our committee dealing with defence matters to bring us up to date with a special briefing. Surely that is as important as appearing on the Late Late Show. I am, therefore, requesting such a meeting.

Having visited Africa on numerous occasions, the Minister of State is no doubt aware that the temperature in Chad will be 45 to 50 degrees. Our mission will never have experienced those types of temperatures before. The Irish Army will arrive in Chad at the start of the rainy season. I understand it will be on an island which is cut off. From the first question time on this mission last October, I have been asking what back-up the mission will have, including medevac helicopters to move those injured in combat or otherwise. In addition, what reconnaissance back-up is available? If troops cannot travel by land over much of this hostile territory because of the rainy season, they will have to do so by helicopter. During a previous question time the Minister said they would have to depend on others, such as the French, for helicopter back-up. Do our troops have their own helicopter back-up? Can the Minister of State confirm if progress has been made in providing such back-up facilities? Has a hospital been established in Abeche? How will people be taken from there to the main hospital in Italy?

  Deputy Tom Kitt: On the final point, each battalion will provide a role one medical facility at the battalion headquarters, at Goz Beida in the case of the Irish battalion. This medical support includes the capability to provide first aid, immediate life-saving measures and triage. Three role two facilities are available at N’Djamena, operated by the French, at Abeche, by Italy and at Berrau in the Central African Republic, by France. Role two medical facilities are the UN standard and normally cover advanced life support and basic surgery.

I wish to make one point concerning the helicopters. The Minister, Deputy O’Dea, has said that because the mission has been generously funded, in summary, what we need we will get. That includes helicopter provision, although the precise details are not available at the moment.

  Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: We have to depend on others.

[805]   Deputy Tom Kitt: Medevac choppers are available. As I said, we will keep Opposition spokespersons continuously updated prior to the end of May.

  Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: What about Lieutenant General Pat Nash?

  Deputy Tom Kitt: I have met Lieutenant General Nash on a number of occasions and will forward the request made by Members to him. I feel this would be appropriate at a particular time but he is very engaged in the process at the moment.

  Deputy Brian O’Shea: I understand, from the figures we received, that there are still around 180,000 refugees in camps in Sudan. Is there any indication that more refugees may wish to cross the border, now that the EUFOR mission is in place? I was very heartened to read that Lieutenant General Nash said Irish troops were exceptionally well received and that the people of villages they visited were anxious that they stay because they felt more secure with them around.

From what the Minister has told us, all the indications are that things are developing well and that this is a well-planned mission. Is it likely that the number of refugees in camps in Chad will increase now?

  Deputy Tom Kitt: The figures I have suggest there are around 4,200 refugees in the camps and among those there are internally displaced persons, IDPs. I understand that this figure is remaining constant. We will keep the Deputy updated on changes in the figures.

The Deputy is correct that there has been a warm welcome for troops and in my view the communication system is working well. As we all said previously in the House when we last addressed this matter, it is important that the distinctive Irish position be communicated. I welcome the fact that Army personnel were on “The Late Late Show” to inform the public of what is happening.

I support this mission, although I acknowledge, along with my colleague, the Minister for Defence, Deputy O’Dea, that it is not safe. All missions have risks but, thankfully, things are going extremely well so far.