Mali crisis: 330 UK military personnel sent to West Africa

 
Malian troops boarding a French military transport plane French and Malian forces having been driving back Islamist rebels in the north of the country

The UK is to deploy about 330 military personnel to Mali and West Africa to support French forces, No 10 has said.

This includes as many as 40 military advisers who will train soldiers in Mali, and 200 British soldiers to be sent to neighbouring African countries, also to help train the Malian army.

French-led forces are continuing their offensive against Islamist militants who seized northern Mali last year.

International donors have pledged $455.53m (£289m) to tackle militants.

The 330 military personnel comprise 200 soldiers going to West African nations, 40 military advisers to Mali, and 90 support crew for a C-17 transport aircraft and a Sentinel R1 surveillance plane. None will have a combat role.

A conference taking place in Brussels is expected to decide which countries will contribute troops for an EU military training mission for Mali and discuss details of the mission.

Meanwhile, French-led troops are consolidating their position in the historic Malian city of Timbuktu after seizing it from Islamist extremists. They are then expected to focus on the last rebel stronghold, Kidal. They seized Gao, northern Mali's biggest city, on Saturday.

In a separate development, Downing Street said UK Prime Minister David Cameron was to visit neighbouring Algeria on Wednesday.

The trip comes in the wake of a hostage crisis that left four Britons and a UK resident dead and two Britons believed dead. During the siege, one statement purporting to be from the hostage-takers called for an end to the French military intervention against Islamist militants in Mali.

'What we can'

Detailing in the House of Commons the "extended support" the UK will offer France, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said it would:

  • Continue to allow the use of one of two C-17 transport planes, which are already flying French equipment to and from Mali, for three months. The RAF has also provided a Sentinel surveillance aircraft
  • Allow the US - which has been involved in airlifting French soldiers and equipment to Mali - to operate air refuelling flights out of Britain
  • Offer a roll-on, roll-off Merchant Navy ferry to help transport equipment to the French force in Mali. It would dock at a port in a West African state to enable the kit to be moved across land to Mali
  • Provide £5m to assist in the training of West African forces through two UN funds - £3m directed to Afisma (African-led International Support Mission to Mali) and £2m to support political processes in Mali

The UK also offered to set up a combined joint logistics HQ in Mali. However, so far the French have declined this offer.

UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond: "We do not envisage UK personnel fulfilling a force protection role"

UK shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said there were concerns about "mission creep".

"The UK commitment to Mali has grown from lending the French two transport aircraft to the deployment of perhaps hundreds of troops to the region," he said.

"UK trainers may be non-combat but that does not mean they are without risk."

But Mr Hammond stressed: "It is not our intention to deploy combat troops. We are very clear about the risks of mission creep.

Analysis

So does this move by the UK signal a new era of defence co-operation - the fruit of the defence treaty signed by Mr Cameron and the then French President Nicholas Sarkozy at Lancaster House just a few years ago? Well, yes and no.

British and French forces have already carried out a number of joint military exercises. They've also worked together in battle - most recently joining forces in the overthrow of Libya's Colonel Gaddafi.

But Libya was fought under the Nato umbrella. And Mali is clearly being led by the French. It's not a truly joint operation, or a sign that in the future Britain will always intervene with the French, or vice versa.

It's more an old fashioned "coalition of the willing", based on the shared threat posed by Islamic radicals. Ultimately British and French commanders are not sitting down together in a joint operations room calling the shots.

And when British troops do arrive on the ground in Mali - in relatively small numbers - they'll be working as part of an EU mission.

"We have defined very carefully the support that we are willing to provide to the French and the Malian authorities."

Number 10 is also considering who will provide "force protection" for the military advisers. At present, it is envisaged the force protection will not be provided by British soldiers. It is possible existing French forces in Mali could be used.

Former defence minister Sir Nick Harvey warned the number of personnel involved could rise if the UK had to provide its own force protection.

"If they (the military advisers) are spread out in different locations providing technical advice to different aspects of the Malian forces then those numbers will begin to climb quite rapidly," he said.

Military analyst Col Mike Dewar said the initial UK support was short-term but its latest offer of help constituted a "much more long-term plan".

It could take "years" for the British troops to make a difference to the "ill-trained" Malian army, he said.

The former head of the Army, General Sir Mike Jackson, backed the government's position but warned that nations involved may face a "protracted guerrilla warfare".

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  • rate this
    +12

    Comment number 805.

    This is at a time we are cutting army jobs. How much longer are we going to stand a government that is not truthful with the electorate?

    If Cameron feels so strong on sending our groups to war zones, he should ensure that they have the proper rewards and support.

  • rate this
    -6

    Comment number 682.

    Hyperbole! Relax - they're not COMBAT troops. France doesn't have the capability to carry out this operation alone so they have requested support from their UK allies in the shape of logistical equipment which needs UK troops to operate - big deal. We're committed to help train african troops as part of a larger EU training mission anyway. To shout 'LIARS' the whole time doesn't make you clever.

  • rate this
    +13

    Comment number 680.

    Cameron has demonstrated again he has poor judgement. There is no appetite in the UK to fight a war in Africa, we will only get drawn in again. More mothers losing their sons in a pointless cause. Remember a former Defence Secretary, John Reid, saying he hoped British Forces being deployed to Afghanistan, 'would not fire a single shot'. Politicians lie and treat us like fools.

  • rate this
    +36

    Comment number 663.

    I work for the Ambulance service and have just received a letter telling me I am to be made redundant due to cuts in funding. I am devastated.
    The conflict in Mali is going to cost millions.

  • rate this
    -11

    Comment number 598.

    Why do you think we have an army. to do nothing, they are there to do their job and that includes assisting our European allies in a non combatant role.

    Typical left wing,can't bear anyone to be doing anything that are not involved in.

    Why not? our troops have already been paid we shouldn't pay them to be sitting in the canteen twiddling their thumbs.

 

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