The Department of Defence says it's looking at chartering a private jet to extrIcate two Irish Army officers from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) amid fears for their safety because locals are blaming foreigners for spreading Covid-19.
Britain and Canada have already evacuated their forces from the UN mission in the DRC following an escalation in tension between locals and foreigners in what is becoming an increasingly volatile country. Intense fighting has broken out between DRC government forces and insurgents which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their homes.
Both of the Irish officers are based in the city of Goma. One was due to come home on April 29 and the other on May 12.
Tensions in the DRC have risen to such an extent that the Defence Forces Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, proposed to extricate the two officers for their own safety.
They are not living in a secure UN compound, but in a flat, which leaves them even more vulnerable.
It had been proposed to use the Government Lear jet to get them out of the country as other nations with a military presence in the DRC had already removed their troops and normal commercial flights weren't going there.
Minister with responsibility for Defence, Paul Kehoe, supported getting the two officers out of the country, but the Department of Defence ruled out using the Government jet for the operation.
In a statement, the Department of Defence said that while the jet is capable of such a mission, its fuel range means the return journey to Goma would involve landing in seven different airports and overnighting at least twice.
It added 'the restrictions and isolation requirements in place in European and African countries as a result of Covid-19 adds to the complexity of this option.'
The Department of Defence confirmed it is now examining the option of chartering an aircraft which would be capable of making the round trip with just the one stopover to pick up the two officers in the DRC.
It said Mr Kehoe's primary concern is the safety of the two personnel and their secure repatriation.
The first cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in the DRC on March 10 and they were said to be amongst people who had flown in from other countries.
To date though there have been just over 1,200 reported cases and 50 deaths from the virus. However, the country's health system and screening is very poor compared to international standards and there are fears the figures are far higher and the virus could be spread quickly by displaced refugees.