The Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Colm Mangan has said that the withdrawal of Irish troops from Lebanon tomorrow is a tremendous milestone in the history of the defence forces.

The Irish battalion finishes peace keeping duties after 23 years but the military chief said that the mission had been very good for the professionalism of the army.

Over 20,000 Irish troops have served in Lebanon since 1978. However, now that peace is restored, Irish soldiers are pulling out. Defence Minister Michael Smith is in Lebanon to attend a special ceremony tomorrow morning to mark their departure.

The current commanding officer in Lebanon Lieutenant Colonel Gerry Hegarty said that there was a feeling of nostalgia but also a sense of mission fulfilled.

The Chief of Staff General Colm Mangan said that he was intensely proud of what the Irish achieved in sad and happy times there. The 45 soldiers who lost their lives had not died in vain, and the army would never give up its efforts to find the body of Private Kevin Joyce who disappeared 20 years ago.

The General also said that the UN had not yet requested peacekeepers for Afghanistan and if a request is made he would make an assessment of Irish capabilities for participation.

Defence Minister Michael Smith, who is in the Lebanon, said that Irish troops will now take up new challenges and missions. He also said that the Irish operation had been a great army morale boost over the past 23 years.

While saying that the Government wants to honour its UN commitment to have 800 soldiers serving abroad, Minister Smith added that it would probably be some time before a full battalion of 600 soldiers serve abroad again.

However, 200 soldiers are leaving for peace-keeping duties in Eritrea and Ethiopia next month. One hundred troops are currently serving in Kosovo, 50 in Sarajevo and 40 in East Timor.