Pope to meet Naval Service members

Pope Francis is to meet members of the Naval Service when he visits in August so he can acknowledge their role in saving thousands of migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.

The Irish Examiner understands that senior Vatican officials made the request to President Michael D Higgins when they were on an advance visit here to sort out the Pope’s itinerary.

As Supreme Commander of the Defence Forces, Mr Higgins then asked that the Naval Service to provide a special guard of honour for Pope Francis.

On St Patrick’s Day, President Higgins hosted a special reception at Áras an Uachtaráin to acknowledge the role of the Naval Service in the migrant rescue mission.

The Naval Service first got involved in rescue missions after a bilateral agreement signed with the Italian authorities, known as Operation Pontus, in 2015.

More recently it switched operations to become part of an EU Taskforce (Operation Sophia) which is taking more robust action against people-smugglers.

This involves intelligence-gathering designed to disrupt the delivery of inflatable vessels to them and patrols under a UN mandate to stop weapons being smuggled into Libya. They are also helping to train the Libyan coastguard.

In the past three years, the Naval Service has sent 10 ships on missions in the Mediterranean Sea.

Their crews have saved 18,017 migrant men, women, and children to date during the course of 111 rescue missions.

LÉ Samuel Beckett is currently in the Mediterranean and is expected to return home in the middle of July.

LE Samuel Beckett

Some of the 11 cadets who will graduate as officers tomorrow at a passing out parade at Naval Service headquarters at Haulbowline Island will be posted to LÉ James Joyce, which will replace LÉ Samuel Beckett on the mission.

Meanwhile, Defence MinisterPaul Kehoe has said military authorities are satisfied conditions have improved sufficiently to support a relocation of the Defence Forces personnel back to Camp Faouar on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.

Irish troops withdrew from the UN camp, 25km inside Syria, in August 2014 after they and fellow UN peacekeepers came under sustained attack from al Qaeda-linked Islamic extremists, amid a war in the region which has seen multiple factions fighting each other, including IS.

Around 130 Irish troops are currently concentrated at Camp Ziouani (known in military terms as the Alpha side), which is on the strategic uplands of the disputed Golan Heights, between Israel and Syria.

Mr Kehoe said the move will take place later this year and will be subject to an “ongoing assessment of the security situation in the region and continued enhancement of force protection measures and living standards within Camp Faouar”.

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