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330 British troops to be sent to Mali

FEARS Britain is being sucked into a major new conflict were raised by MPs after the Government revealed 330 troops could soon be deployed to terror-hit Mali, mainly to train local forces.

Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, told MPs Britain's involvement was extremely modest. It will comprise of:

l 20 military personnel to man a C17 transport aircraft, the use of which to ferry troops was being extended for three months.

l 70 staff to operate a Sentinel surveillance aircraft.

l 40 staff as part of an EU mission to train Malian forces.

l 200 troops to train English-speaking soldiers from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Gambia as part of Afisma, the African-led support mission to Mali.

The UK Government is also offering £5 million to boost security and political structures.

Consideration is also being given by the Ministry of Defence to provide a roll-on/roll-off ferry to transport French troops to north Africa and allowing US aircraft to use bases in Britain to provide air-to-air refuelling.

The offer of combined logistics headquarters has been rejected by the French.

Mr Hammond insisted the Coalition was well aware of mission creep and was clear that British forces would not become involved in a combat role.

He said the offer was a very well-leveraged use of UK resources to deliver effect at minimal cost and risk.

Mr Hammond explained the protection of UK trainers would probably be provided by the French but British troops would be able to fire their weapons in self-defence.

He pointed to how the French envisaged a short intervention to stabilise the situation so that African forces could sustain it in the longer term. However, some MPs expressed concerns.

Jim Murphy, shadow defence secretary, said: "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.

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

Tory backbencher, John Baron, whose request for an urgent statement brought Mr Hammond to the Commons, said: "Afghanistan illustrated the dangers of being sucked into larger deployments - the mission morphed into something much larger."

Labour backbencher David Winnick insisted, after 11 years of war in Afghanistan, there was "absolutely no appetite in this country whatsoever for British troops to be sucked into a new war, a war far away and a war that could easily escalate".

His party colleague, Paul Flynn, pointed out how at first only two British troops died in Afghanistan, but this had increased to 440 and that there was a "grave danger Mali could turn into another Helmand".

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Conservative foreign secretary, said there was every probability of years of "asymmetrical conflict" in Mali unless a political solution was found.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Liberal Democrat leader, asked about the long-term implications, particularly if al Qaeda affiliates were displaced from Mali. He asked: "How far are we willing to pursue them?"

However, there was support for the Government's approach from both sides of the House.

Tory backbencher Penny Mordaunt said Britain, because of trade and status, had huge global interests and "this sort of capacity-building exercise is time and money well-spent".

Mr Hammond replied: "I would remind her and other members of the House of the risks to our society and the societies of our allies if we allow areas of ungoverned space to fall under control of al Qaeda and its associates – to become a place where they can plan and execute attacks on our interests."

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