I thank the Deputy for his opening remarks. I had a lengthy meeting with the deputation from the Irish Missionary Union last Friday morning.
Since 1991, a war of fluctuating intensity has been going on in Sierra Leone. It was initiated by rebels from neighbouring Liberia but has since expanded to include a number of other factions, disaffected elements of the Sierra Leone army and gangs of criminals. In recent weeks the conflict has become more vicious and widespread than ever and has resulted in indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population, many of whom have had to flee their homes and tens of thousands of whom are now in Guinea. Seventeen expatriates, including seven religious sisters, were abducted several weeks ago and have not yet been released. Fighting has come close to the capital, Freetown. The latest information we have from the Consul-General there is that the situation is relatively calm but that tension remains high.
At the time the war escalated about a month ago, there were about 70 Irish citizens in Sierra Leone. As the situation deteriorated we, like our EU partners, advised our citizens that if they did not have to stay in the country they should leave, at least until security improved. More than half of them have now done so. All Irish religious sisters — Daughters of Charity, Holy Rosary and Cluny Sisters, of which there were about 40 — have left for neighbouring countries or come home or Ireland.
The number of our citizens in the country now is about 30, including ten Holy Ghost missionaries and two Christian Brothers. Four of the missionaries are in Freetown, three are in Bo, about 140 miles from the capital, and three others are in Kenema, about a further 40 miles beyond Bo. The Christian Brothers are in Makeni, about 90 miles from Freetown. These 12 missionaries are aware of the risks they are running by remaining on in present circumstances but they want to stay as long as possible, in solidarity with the local people.
The 20 or so other Irish citizens are in the relatively more secure Freetown area. They include five employees of ESB International, the Honorary Consul-General and his family and a number of spouses of Sierra Leoneans and dual citizens.
In addition to advising citizens in Sierra Leone to leave, we are advising people thinking of going to Sierra Leone to refrain from doing so for the time being.
I am deeply concerned about the situation.Accordingly, I had the meeting to which I referred with the Irish Missionary Union and recently returned missionaries last Friday morning. We had a lengthy discussion during which they gave me factual and full details of what has happened in the country and of the breakdown of law and order. They also mentioned the situation with regard to displaced persons and refugees.We are now considering providing emergency assistance to people who have been displaced or who are refugees.We did that last year and we are looking at it again as a matter of urgency.
At EU level we strongly supported a German initiative and a joint statement has been issued that includes an endorsement of the recent initiative of the UN Secretary-General, who has appointed a Special Envoy, Mr. Dirka, to work with the parties towards a negotiated settlement of the conflict. That statement was issued today by the French Presidency on behalf of all the EU countries. In it the EU partners express their deep concern at the ongoing crisis in Sierra Leone and at the increase in violent attacks on settlements and the country's economic assets. They deplore the consequent suffering and widespread displacement inflicted on the civilian population, condemn the abduction of 17 foreign citizens, wholly innocent victims of the conflict, and call for their release. The EU urges all those concerned to take advantage of the initiatives, in particular those of the UN Secretary-General and the Commonwealth Secretary-General, together with the countries of the region aimed at bringing about a peaceful solution to the conflict.
The Honorary Consul-General in Freetown is closely monitoring the situation and consulting the missions of EU partners. The British authorities have confirmed to us their readiness, if necessary, to help in the emergency evacuation of Irish citizens in the same way as their own if security requires it. I thank our British colleagues for their co-operation in this matter.
The Government remains concerned about the disturbed situation in Sierra Leone and the welfare of our people who are still there. We are all concerned that it will deteriorate dramatically into a crisis on a substantial scale. I do not wish to refer to Rwanda but potential disaster in Sierra Leone has been forewarned and the EU must take steps to prevent it.
I particularly want to commiserate with the Sisters of Cluny who have been 140 years in the country. For the first time they now have no presence there. On meeting the delegation, some of whom were quite advanced in years, I was very impressed by their commitment to the country and by the degree of personal pain they were suffering at seeing, in many cases, 40 years work torn up in a war that is inexplicable to most people who would like to be friends of Sierra Leone and who have good will towards that part of Africa.