UK

Mali crisis: Situation 'serious concern' for UK

English soldiers inside a British Army Boeing C-17 cargo aircraft, arriving from the British Brize Norton base and en-route to Bamako
Image caption The first of two C17s left RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire on Sunday

The UK's Africa minister has warned against allowing a "terrorist haven" to develop in northern Mali, telling MPs the situation is a "serious concern".

Mark Simmonds said the UK was offering "limited support" to French military efforts against Islamist rebels.

Two RAF cargo planes have been sent - although one was delayed in France - and UK technical personnel have been sent to Mali to receive them.

The UK's National Security Council is meeting later to discuss the situation.

The council is made up of several members of the cabinet, plus defence and intelligence chiefs when required, and meets weekly.

France has been attacking the militants since Friday, to support Mali's government.

On Monday, all members of the UN Security Council convened in New York for an emergency meeting at France's request and backed the country's military intervention.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he hoped the move by France would help restore "Mali's constitutional order and territorial integrity".

Thousands of African troops, deployed under a UN Security Council resolution, are due to join Malian and French forces to help push back the rebels' offensive.

'Danger of instability'

Earlier, in a statement to the House of Commons, Mr Simmonds said: "The situation in Mali is a serious concern for the UK. It would not be in our interests to allow a terrorist haven to develop in northern Mali.

"As a responsible member of the Security Council, we must support the region in limiting the danger of instability in that part of Africa, threatening UK interests."

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Media captionMark Simmonds: "It would not be in our [UK's] interests to allow a terrorist haven to develop in northern Mali"

One RAF C17 plane arrived in France on Sunday to collect French military equipment and fly it to Bamako, Mali's capital.

However, its flight from France to Mali was delayed because of a "minor technical fault", the MoD said.

The second C17 arrived at the Evreux-Fauville airbase near Paris and was expected to be the first to leave for Mali once it was loaded.

Mr Simmonds told the Commons that a small detachment of technical personnel had also been deployed to Bamako airport, where it would operate and defend the aircraft.

BBC diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall said Mr Simmonds could not dispel concerns among some MPs that military intervention might not be over in weeks, as the French have claimed, but turn into a quagmire that could spread beyond Mali's porous borders.

Operational priorities

Labour's Jeremy Corbyn asked Mr Simmonds whether there was a danger of "mission creep" and the UK and France becoming "involved in a war that will actually create a growth of those forces we are seeking to oppose".

Peter Hain, a Labour former minister for Africa, said: "This could become an incredibly long, drawn-out and difficult morass. We have got to be very careful to promote a political solution to it."

Mr Simmonds said the military intervention by the French would involve a "short timeframe deployment" but that a political solution "will take some considerable time".

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said: "The situation in Mali is grave, with al-Qaeda controlling huge swathes of the country. Unchecked, this could become a real threat to the UK and others, and that is why we support the action that is being taken."

Mr Simmonds said the use of the C17s would not impact on other operational priorities, including operations in Afghanistan.

Defence minister Andrew Robathan told the Commons the UK's commitment of two RAF planes was planned to last a week.

Earlier, Prime Minister David Cameron told BBC Radio 4's Today programme Britain would also share intelligence with France as part of its campaign.

"There is a very dangerous Islamist regime allied to al-Qaeda in control of the north of that country. It was threatening the south of that country and we should support the action that the French have taken," he said.

Training mission

The European Union said it would bring forward a military training mission to Mali, which would be launched "in the second half of February or early March".

In December, the EU said it would train Malian and other African troops before they tried to retake the north from rebels, but the spokesman said that ongoing fighting made the mission more urgent.

Asked whether the UK would play any part in the training, the prime minister's official spokesman told reporters: "We are discussing that training mission with our European partners."

The French are trying to halt an advance by rebels affiliated with al-Qaeda, who have been pushing south from their northern base against the Mali government.

France deployed 550 troops last week after Mali forces lost control of the strategically important town of Konna to the rebels.

The town has since been recaptured by Malian troops with French aerial support.

Islamist groups and secular Tuareg rebels seized a swathe of northern Mali in April 2012 after taking advantage of chaos following a military coup.

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