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Tuesday 12 December 2017

Irish troops safe as shots fired in rescue mission

IRISH troops on the Golan Heights are safe after helping Filipino soldiers escape when they were surrounded by rebel fighters linked to al-Qaeda.

The members of the Irish Defence Forces were involved in a tense operation as UN troops came under attack from Syrian rebels.

All members of the Irish Defence Forces currently in the Golan Heights are safe and accounted for, a spokesman said.

He confirmed Irish troops took part in the operation to rescue other UN troops from a position that had been compromised by armed elements.

The troops fired three bursts of heavy machine-gun fire at al-Qaeda-linked rebel forces as they paved the way for the rescue of Filipino comrades, who had been under siege for seven hours.

Warning

The warning shots, fired from a 12.7mm weapon fitted to a Mowag armoured vehicle, achieved their aim and members of the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, withdrew from the area.

The Irish action ended the siege and allowed for the safe transfer of 38 Filipino soldiers from the UN post at Braika, within the buffer zone between Syria and Israel, to a safer position.

Last night, all of the 130-strong Irish contingent were safe. Some were sent back out on patrols throughout the zone while the rest were on stand-by at their base, Camp Faouar, in Syria.

The rescue of the Filipinos was one of a number of armed incidents within the zone over the past three days.

In what was described by their military chief as "the great escape", the Filipino walked to freedom in the early hours of Saturday after their surrender had been demanded by rebel forces, who had surrounded their post.

The Filipinos made their push for freedom during a lull in the firing. Irish troops were on stand-by in the area as the Filipinos were transferred to Camp Ziouani on the Israel side of the border.

The warning shots were fired by the Irish on Friday as they prepared for the rescue of the Filipinos.

Meanwhile, attempts to negotiate the rescue of 44 Fijian troops, who were kidnapped from their post on Thursday, were underway last night.

Low-level talks were understood to have been ongoing involving mediators acting on behalf of the UN to guarantee the safe return of the captives.

Defence Minister Simon Coveney (inset) has moved to reassure the families of Irish troops that they are safe and has also called on the UN to carry out a review of its mission in Syria.

"Irish involvement in my view is crucial to this mission," he said.

"I'm not going to pull our troops out without the opportunity for the UN to fundamentally review the mission, how it's operating, and to give us the assurances we're asking for.

"Once we get a release, we hope, of the Fijian troops, that is the time to have an overall review of the operation and Ireland's involvement in it."

Armour

He also said Irish soldiers in Golan have state of the art equipment including helmets, and kevlar body armour and they are deployed in armoured personnel carriers.

The Irish continued to fulfil their tasks last night despite the tension that has grown in the area since the rebels moved in on Wednesday after the rebels overran the Quneitra crossing on the frontier and abducted some of the UN soldiers.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and the UN security council have both condemned the attacks on the UN positions and the continuing detention of the Fijians.

See Page 14

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