Mali Conflict: British Troops To Train Forces

Up to 200 British military personnel could be deployed to West Africa to help train a regional intervention force for Mali.

The news represents a further deepening of the UK's involvement in the conflict to drive out Islamist militants.

Downing Street said the troops would be in addition to the 40 or so personnel that Britain is offering to contribute to a European Union training mission to build up the Malian army.

The UK has also offered to supply a roll-on, roll-off ferry to help transport heavy equipment to the French intervention force currently spearheading the fight against militants.

It will also allow allies such as the United States to fly air-to-air refuelling missions from British airbases in support of the French operation.

However an offer to establish a joint Anglo-French logistics headquarters in Mali to organise supplies to the French force has not been taken up by Paris.

With around 90 UK personnel already committed in the region with the RAF Sentinel surveillance aircraft and two C-17 transport aircraft already operating in support of the French mission, it could take the numbers involved to more than 300.

A spokesman for David Cameron said the Prime Minister remained adamant that British troops would not be involved in combat operations against the militants.

Answering an urgent question from Labour in the Commons, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond confirmed the deployment numbers and said the 200 British troops would assist English-speaking West African countries.

He said the role of the UK soldiers "is clearly not a combat role and will not extend to a force protection role".

When pressed by Labour about exit strategies, Mr Hammond said he shared plans outlined by France that it should be a "short intervention to stabilise the situation on the ground".

The Defence Secretary added that Britain was "very clear" about the risks involved and the Government had "defined very clearly the support we are willing and able to provide to the French and Malian authorities".

The mission to train a West African force known as Afisma - which has been under consideration since late last year - was being discussed at a donor conference for Mali being organised by the African Union in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

British personnel will be involved in training troops from countries such as Nigeria, which is expected to be one of the largest contributors to Afisma. The force is slated to take over from the French once their mission is over.

Speaking from the historic city of Timbuktu, which was taken by the French forces on Monday, Sky News special correspondent Alex Crawford said British soldiers would help bolster the Malian forces, which she described as "very depleted".

Local troops had been unable to fight off militants entering Timbuktu last year and simply put down their weapons and fled - leaving the already armed radical jihadists with further weaponry.

Crawford added: "Malians themselves as an army have a reputation for being ill-disciplined, badly motivated and are accused in some towns of carrying out human rights abuses, so there's clearly a lot of training to be done there."

Looting and violence broke out in Timbuktu on Tuesday. Homes and businesses of suspected jihadist supporters were broken into as local residents vented their anger at the regime which had controlled the city until French troops moved in.

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy told Sky News that Labour supported the Government's decision to send troops to Mali for training purposes.

But Mr Murphy cautioned that the public were "wary" about military commitments after the UK's involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.