Thursday, 22 June 2006
Department of Defence
Question 77: To ask the Minister for Defence if he will report on his recent visit to Kosovo; the number of Irish troops serving there; the nature of the mission; his assessment of the situation there; his assessment of how long Irish troops will be deployed there; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23310/06]
During the period 12 to 14 June, 2006, I took the opportunity to pay a short visit to Kosovo where I met with the Irish personnel of 32nd Infantry Battalion serving with the NATO-led International Security presence (KFOR) in Kosovo.
The primary purpose of my visit was to see at first hand the work of the Irish Defence Forces personnel serving with KFOR and to convey to them, on behalf of the Government and the people of Ireland, the deep appreciation felt regarding the outstanding manner in which they perform their duties in this challenging mission. On my visit, I was accompanied by the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces and the Assistant Secretary General of the Department of Defence.
During the course of my visit I had a number of briefings and opportunities to see the work being done by the Irish Defence Forces personnel serving with KFOR. On 12 June, 2006, I visited Camp Clarke to meet with the members of the 32nd Infantry Group stationed there. I had the opportunity to informally meet and speak with the troops and found morale to be very high. I was also impressed by the range of humanitarian activities being supported by Irish Defence Forces personnel. I was pleased to confirm that Irish Aid was providing â¬25,000 to fund three specific local projects supported by the troops. These are the refurbishment of three school classrooms in Rasince, the construction of a sports arena for the school in Oklap and the refurbishment of school toilets in Bandukic.
I later met Albiona Jashari and her family. Albiona Jashari is a young local girl whose critical eye operation is arranged and paid for from voluntary contributions raised by Irish troops.
On 13 June, 2006, I had detailed discussions and briefings from the KFOR Commander: Lieutenant General Giuseppe Valotto at the KFOR HQ at Film City in Pristina. Lt Gen Valotto gave a full assessment of the current position across Kosovo and was fulsome in his praise for the Irish Defence Forces personnel serving there, including the Senior Irish Officer serving with KFOR.
I had lengthy discussions with representatives from UNMIK at UNMIK Headquarters. There we discussed issues relating to economic and infrastructural difficulties in Kosovo and the timetable for the Status Talks. This was followed by a detailed briefing by an officer of the Irish Defence Forces, who is the Chief Military Liaison Officer with UNMIK to KFOR.
That afternoon I travelled to Camp Ville to meet Col Miroslav Hlavac, the Commander of the KFOR Multinational Task Force Centre (MNTFC) and received a briefing by his Chief of Staff, who is an officer of the Irish Defence Forces. This was followed by a Helicopter flight and drive through the Irish Area of Responsibility. The visit was concluded by an informal dinner, hosted by me, in Pristina.
KFOR was established on 10 June, 1999, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1244, for an initial period of twelve months, to continue thereafter unless the UN Security Council decides otherwise. The role of KFOR is to support the maintenance of civil law and order within Kosovo so as to develop a climate of safety and security, which will enable the transfer of increased responsibility to the civil authorities. Ireland has participated in the KFOR since August 1999.
In March 2004, a reorganisation and downsizing of the NATO led forces in KFOR, which had partly commenced earlier, was deferred following civil disturbances in Kosovo at that time. That restructuring has now recommenced and is ongoing. However, having regard to the fragility of the peace in Kosovo, and subject to ongoing assessments of the situation on the ground, both myself and the Minister for Foreign Affairs are agreed on the importance of maintaining an Irish presence in the Western Balkans in 2006/2007.
The situation in the KFOR mission area has improved since the serious outbreak of violence in March 2004, the situation remains tense with sporadic violent incidents continuing. The KFOR mandate is expected to continue for some considerable time to come.
The Irish contingent currently comprises an Infantry Group of some 213 personnel including a number of personnel in staff posts at various Headquarters. The Infantry Group was first deployed in September 2003. Previously a Transport Group had been deployed with KFOR since August 1999.
The Irish Infantry Group operates as part of a multinational grouping, within the Czech led Multi National Task Force (Centre). It comprises a Mowag APC Mounted Company together with support and logistic elements. The main tasks of the Irish Infantry Group include the following; provision of general security to all ethnic groups, institutions and cultural sites; provision of support to UNMIK Police and other agencies with security tasks; identification of and reporting on extremist groups and activities; vehicle and foot patrols; vehicle checkpoints and operation of Observation Posts.