Prime Minister David Cameron is set to deploy as many as 200 British military personnel to West Africa to help train a regional intervention force for Mali, in a further deepening of U.K. involvement in the campaign against Islamist militants.
Cameron’s spokesman, Jean-Christophe Gray, told reporters in London that the trainers would be in addition to as many as 40 military personnel that Britain is offering to contribute to a European Union mission to build up the Malian army. That would take the total number of U.K. soldiers involved in the operation to more than 300.
“I would describe it as doing what we can to support the French intervention,” Gray said, when asked if the additional deployments represent “mission creep” by British forces. “We have been very clear about our position” that U.K. troops will not assume a combat role.
France has deployed 2,500 soldiers and West African countries are sending an initial 3,300 to Mali to help clear the north of the country of Islamist forces. Western donors today pledged more than $450 million to support the African operation at a meeting in Addis Ababa.
In addition, the U.K. has offered a roll-on, roll-off ferry to help transport heavy equipment to the French force. Britain will also allow allies such as the U.S to fly air-to-air refueling missions from U.K. airbases in support of French combat troops.
“The public are wary and weary of conflict as a consequence of recent history,” the opposition Labour Party’s defense spokesman, Jim Murphy, told lawmakers. “There will be worries about mission creep and the safety of U.K. trainers.”
Cameron is under pressure to show he is not overstretching Britain’s military after cutting the regular army to 82,000 personnel from 102,000 by 2020.
Britain and France signed new treaties on defense co- operation in 2010, allowing spending cuts while seeking to retain global military clout. Today’s announcement shows that Britain is “showing willing” toward the French, according to Michael Codner, director of military science at the Royal United Services Institute, a research body, in London.
“While I accept what the prime minister intends now, about not involving British troops in a combat role, there is always the possibility of an attack on forces there,” Codner said in a telephone interview.
Asked if the deployment may amount to mission creep by the British, Codner replied: “I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion, but what if military hostages are taken for instance? Then we would have to start getting them out.”
The deployment announced today is “an opportunity for us to demonstrate the validity of that working relationship with France” Defense Secretary Philip Hammond told lawmakers. France had been clear it intended a short mission, Hammond said.
About 90 U.K. personnel are already committed to the region. A Royal Air Force Sentinel surveillance aircraft and two C-17 military transport planes are operating in support of the French mission, with the deployment of one of the C-17s set to be extended by three months.
Gray told reporters that an offer to establish a joint Anglo-French logistics headquarters in Mali had not been taken up by French President Francois Hollande.
The U.K. will donate 3 million pounds ($4.7 million) to the African force and 2 million pounds to Mali to help secure the country’s stability, Hammond told lawmakers.
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