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Operation Irini: With Irish forces inside a mission to end arms smuggling to Libya

Our first article in a two part series on the work of the Irish Defence Forces in dealing with arms smuggling in Libya.

The Irish team in Rome, From left Capt Damien Kelly, Chief Petty Officers Donal O'Sullivan, Gerry Foley and Commander Brian Sweeney.
The Irish team in Rome, From left Capt Damien Kelly, Chief Petty Officers Donal O'Sullivan, Gerry Foley and Commander Brian Sweeney.
Image: Niall O'Connor/The Journal.

Updated Sep 30th 2022, 9:48 AM

IRISH DEFENCE FORCES personnel have spoken about their involvement in an operation targeting a large cargo ship involved in arms smuggling to warring factions in Libya. 

A team from the Irish navy and the Air Corps are based in a military installation outside Rome as part of Operation Irini which is a United Nations Mandated European staffed mission to bring stability to Libya. 

In 2014 Libya split in two as rival administrations, based in the east and the west of the country, battled each other for supremacy. 

Much of the recent fighting has been centred around the city of Tripoli and involves a diverse number of militias and rebel groups.

The fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011 has led to a number of civil wars. 

To combat this problem and bring stability to the region the EU and UN initiated Operation Irini.

This week The Journal travelled to Rome to meet the team and in a series of articles tell the story of how a small group of Irish officers and senior enlisted naval Chief Petty Officers are helping to bring peace to the north African state. 

Commander Brian Sweeney, of the Irish navy, is the senior national representative attached to Operation Irini. 

He is joined by Captain Damien Kelly of the Irish Air Corps and Chief Petty Officers Donal O’Sullivan and Gerry Foley of the Irish Navy.

Kelly works on monitoring smuggling flights into Libya while O’Sullivan and Foley work in an administrative role managing the human resources aspects of the mission. 

They are joined by other soldiers, aircrew and sailors on the mission from 24 other EU nations all part of the EU Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) mission. They have ships at sea and a number of aircraft. 

‘Technicals’

Sweeney, in his role, has an overview of operations and was directly involved in one of the biggest successes to date.

The MV Victory Roro (Roll on roll off) was found to be shipping 105 high-spec armoured cars across the Mediterranean destined to be used in the fighting in Libya. 

Known as “technicals” in military circles – the vehicles are armoured pick up trucks which run a heavy machine gun turret on the roof. 

Sweeney said the highlight of his trip was working on that mission and dealing with the real world, grandscale, chessboard of military movements in the operations centre. 

“The boarding of MV Victory Roro and the taking of 105 military grade vehicles, basically off to the streets of Libya has been the highlight for me personally.

“That feels like we did something good. So that’s certainly the thing that I’m most proud of overseeing from an operations point of view,” Sweeney said. 

Lab-3 Irish forces inside the Operations centre discussing mission activities with senior officers. Source: EUNAVFOR MED

The MV Victory operation followed weeks of gathering an intelligence picture – using secretive techniques combined with open source monitoring.

Sweeney revealed that the operation uses everything from social media traffic of participating smugglers and those aligned to them, cargo manifest examinations by local law enforcement agents tasked by Interpol and even satellite footage.

“At sea the operation is run by the senior officers tasked with commanding the mission so they move the troops around, they move the aircraft, ships and crews.

“Here at this side we provide oversight and feed into that with an overall point of view.

“We were watching that ship for a long time and building up an understanding. We have to satisfy certain reasonable grounds before we can go ahead with the boarding.

“So once that was cleared along the line the commander gave the nod to go ahead with the boarding,” Sweeney said.

Intelligence work found that the Victory Roro, using a so-called flag of convenience, was registered in Equatorial Guinea and was long suspected of transferring military equipment to Benghazi in Libya.

A flag of convenience is a loophole whereby a ship is operated under the registration of a country where they pay less to operate or where there is less regulation. 

She was built in 1978 and previously operated under the name of Luccello and flying the flag of the Comoros.

Her last shipment, before the July 2022 operation brought a stop to her activities, was suspected to have been in March. 

DSC_01211 The MV Victory Roro being shadowed by a European naval vessel. Source: EUNAVFOR MED

Sweeney watched on as the tasking orders were received by a naval team – with a French aircraft orbiting over head providing real time information. 

The mission

The Victory Roro had crossed into the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal and was being closely watched by a Maritime patrol plane – her port of origin was in Aqaba in Jordan. 

She left there on 13 July and was due to arrive on the Libyan coast on 19 July – Sweeney and the rest of the team had to act quickly.  

In difficult sea conditions the naval forces moved in – the Greek navy frigate HS Themistokles shadowed the vessel. While the Italian Navy Grecale was close by with a Special Forces team ready to board. 

Having built up the overall intelligence picture and the operational planning Sweeney and other senior officers watched on in the operations room in Rome as the Italian Naval team launched in helicopters to take over the ship.

When the special forces boarding team had control of the ship a specialist inspection team then were winched on board.

There, in the hold of the vessel, they found the 105 vehicles – all kitted out for warfare and ready to enter the civil war in Libya.

They were immediately declared in breach of the UN arms embargo and the vessel was seized – taken to a European port for a wider search. 

DSC_0095 A member of the inspection team being choppered in to begin searching the Victory for weapons and equipment. Source: EU NAVFOR MED

Constant monitoring

Sweeney says it is only one of the many operations they have been involved in and they continue to monitor the ship.

“Just to give you an idea of how important the constant monitoring of the situation is, even since Victory was boarded, she’s changed her name and changed her registration.

“It just shows you that you have to be very, very clued in to what’s happening at sea and constantly monitoring the situation because ships can change their name, change their flag, change their company.

“It requires constant assets on the ground and in the air so that we can determine categorically what we believe is happening is actually happening in real time, he said.

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