Irish troops mark end of Lebanon peacekeeping duties

More than 1,600 troops paraded through Dublin today, with President Mary McAleese taking the salute, to mark the withdrawal of Ireland's United Nations force from Lebanon.

More than 1,600 troops paraded through Dublin today, with President Mary McAleese taking the salute, to mark the withdrawal of Ireland's United Nations force from Lebanon.

Military bands played as troops wearing the UN’s blue berets marched along O’Connell Street before an audience including Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, other dignitaries, and military commanders.

Ms McAleese inspected the Guard of Honour before the parade made its way to the national Garden of Remembrance for a wreath-laying ceremony.

The event was to celebrate the achievements of the Irish troops, who spent 23 years in Lebanon with the Unifil force, and to commemorate their 47 comrades who died there - 17 of them in action.

Bright winter sunlight streamed on to the parade as it passed a beaming President outside the GPO the birthplace of the 1916 Easter Rising which ultimately led to Republic’s independence from Britain.

The march past, the biggest military parade in Ireland for decades, drew thousands of people on to the capital’s streets.

The mission in Lebanon had involved a total of 20,000 Irish soldiers since 1978.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has described the Irish contribution to Unifil as ‘‘outstanding’’.

Members of the Army, Air Corps and Naval Service were joined by the Reserve, the Organisation of National Ex-Servicemen and women and the Irish United Nations Veterans Association.

Families of soldiers killed and injured in Lebanon also joined the march.

Pride of place on the parade went to the 550 soldiers of the 89th Infantry Battalion, the last unit to serve in Unifil, which returned to Ireland on November 13.

A further 220 troops, who next month will join peacekeeping operations in the UNMEE force in Ethiopia and Eritrea, were also on the march past.

At the Garden of Remembrance the President stood side by side with the Taoiseach as the name of each of the dead soldiers was read out.

Both then laid wreaths before a one-minute silence, which was followed by a bugler playing the Last Post.

During their time at Camp Shamrock in Lebanon, Irish troops were involved in mine-clearance and ordnance disposal, and medical and humanitarian work for the people of south Lebanon.

For years they stood between Israeli troops and south Lebanese guerrillas during some of the most difficult and dangerous times of the conflict.

The Irish served through years of bloody civil war from 1978 and the period of Israeli occupation between 1982 and 1984.

In the 1990s Irish troops remained in place throughout two massive Israeli bombardments of south Lebanon, in 1993 and 1996, after attacks into Israel by the Lebanese guerrilla force, Hizbollah.

In all, Unifil lost 235 international peacekeepers from different nations. The remains of one Irish soldier, Private Caoimghin Seoighe, who disappeared following an attack on his post in 1981, are still being sought.

The UN mandate in the region was eventually completed last year when Israel’s then Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, withdraw his troops.

The Unifil garrison is now being reduced to two single battalions, from the Indian and Ghanaian armies.

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