An Irish Air Corps plane with five crew members was returning to Ireland on Thursday night following delays as part of a rescue mission to extract three Army officers from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The three officers on service with the United Nations’ Monusco mission were withdrawn last Friday afternoon following an operation that last week saw a PC-12 aircraft travel 7,000km to the troubled central African nation.
However, while the three Irish officers returned to Ireland last week, the military aircraft sent to bring back their weapons, which could not be taken on commercial flights, and other kit was unable to begin the journey back to Ireland due to administrative delays.
The Irish aircraft, valued at about €5 million and which came into service in early 2020, was stranded in Entebbe Airport, Uganda, as the crew waited for permission from the Sudanese authorities to fly there on the return journey. The aircraft left Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel, Co Kildare, last Tuesday week. News of the secret mission to extract the Irish personnel from the Democratic Republic of Congo, amid increasing violence there, emerged in The Irish Times last weekend.
As the PC-12 aircraft’s range is more limited than other military aircraft, it was required to chart a specific route back to Ireland, including to refuel. This necessitated flying to Sudan, which delayed in granting permission. However, in reply to queries the Department of Defence confirmed on Thursday afternoon the plane was on the return journey and had reached Cairo.
“A military operation is being completed – associated with the departure of Defence personnel from Monusco – to repatriate equipment from DRC,” the reply stated.
“It involves diplomatic clearances across the airspace and territory of 14 countries and was always expected to take until the end of this week as a number of countries are observing religious holidays. The department has been informed that the return flight has landed in Cairo.”
The Irish soldiers were due to return home in the coming weeks as part of a standard troop rotation. However, this was moved forward amid growing unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It is understood that continued Irish participation in Monusco, which involves some 18,000 peacekeepers and is responsible for protecting civilians and stabilising the country, has been put under review by Minister for Defence Simon Coveney. Tensions between the UN mission and the DRC government have been growing in recent weeks.
Thirty-six people, including four UN peacekeepers, were killed at the end of July and UN buildings were set alight during rioting in several cities in the east of the country. Much of the violence was concentrated around the city of Goma, where the Irish contingent were based.
There has been widespread criticism of the UN in the DRC for failing to protect civilians from armed gangs active in the east, including the M23 group. The UN intended to bring the mission to an end in 2024 but it is understood that this may be expedited in light of recent events.