Britain mulls boosting support for Mali offensive
LONDON/SEGOU: British defence chiefs were to discuss on Tuesday how to boost support for the French-led offensive in Mali in the wake of the deadly hostage crisis at a gas plant in neighbouring Algeria.
British Prime Minister David Cameron was to chair a meeting of the National Security Council to consider what additional surveillance and transport assistance Britain can provide to the operation against Al Qaeda-linked militant rebels in Mali.
Britain has already loaned two C-17 transport planes to France and pledged to provide troops to a European Union (EU) mission to train the Malian army, though Cameron said the British contribution would number “in the tens, not the hundreds”. The prime minister stressed that Britain was “not seeking a combat role” in Mali.
The Times newspaper reported on Tuesday that British troops had been placed on “high readiness” to deploy, but a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said its planning “does not include British personnel in a ground combat role”.
“The MoD is supporting French efforts through logistical support,” a ministry spokesman said. “Ministers will continue to review the situation and any requirement for further support,” he added.
Cameron said on Monday that North Africa was becoming a “magnet” for ‘jihadists’ from other countries, and vowed to use Britain’s presidency of the G8 this year to tackle terrorism.
He said Britain would contribute intelligence and counter-terrorism assets to an “international effort to find and dismantle the network that planned and ordered the brutal assault” on the remote In Amenas gas field.
Three Britons have been confirmed dead in the Algerian crisis, while three others are believed dead.
Towns cleared of militants
Meanwhile, Malian forces on Tuesday controlled the strategic town that was under extreme rule for four months, as the French-led military intervention pushed northward in its second week. Douentza had been the outer edge of rebel control until the militants surged southward earlier this month.
While far from the capital, Douentza is only 190 kilometers northeast from Mopti, which marks the line-of-control held by the Malian military. On Monday, French and Malian troops arrived in Douentza to find that the militants already had retreated from the town, local adviser Sali Maiga told The Associated Press. ”The Malian military and the French army spent their first night and the people are very happy,” Maiga said Tuesday.
A curfew went into effect at 8 pm, and there was no gunfire or other incidents reported overnight, he said.
Back in September, a convoy of pickup trucks carrying militants had entered Douentza, and in the months that followed the extremists forced women to wear veils and enlisted children as young as 12 as soldiers in training. The announcement that Douentza was again in government hands came Monday, the same day French and Malian forces again patrolled the streets of Diabaly after nearly a week of Islamist rule.
The presence of Malian soldiers in the two towns marks tangible accomplishments for the French-led mission, which began on January 11 after the rebels pushed south and seized the central Malian town of Konna.
That seizure had marked the furthest south the militants had ventured since taking control of northern Mali’s main cities following a March 2012 coup in Bamako, the capital in Mali’s south.
France said Monday there are now about 1,000 African troops in Mali to take part in the military intervention.
Colonel Thierry Burkhard, the French military spokesman, said the soldiers come from Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Niger and Chad. France has 2,150 forces in Mali, and said it could exceed 2,500 at full deployment in the former French colony. It has received logistical support from Western allies and intelligence from the United States but the French ultimately hope that West African soldiers will take the lead alongside Malian troops in securing the country.
Neighboring African countries are ultimately expected to contribute around 3,000 troops but concerns about the mission have delayed some from sending their promised troops.