Britain to send military transport planes to assist Mali operation
Britain is to provide military aircraft to transport foreign troops to Mali amid a new push against Islamist forces in the country.
Downing Street confirmed two RAF C-17s would be made available urgently, but added that no British personnel will be deployed in a combat role.
The move followed a telephone call between David Cameron, the Prime Minister, and Francois Hollande, the French President.
The two transport aircraft are expected to be deployed within 24 to 48 hours.
"The Prime Minister spoke to President Hollande this evening to discuss the deteriorating situation in Mali and how the UK can support French military assistance provided to the Malian Government to contain rebel and extremist groups in the north of the country," a spokeswoman said.
"The Prime Minister has agreed that the UK will provide logistical military assistance to help transport foreign troops and equipment quickly to Mali.
"We will not be deploying any British personnel in a combat role.
"They also agreed that the peacekeeping mission from West African countries needs to be strongly supported by countries in the region and deployed as quickly as possible.
"Both leaders agreed that the situation in Mali poses a real threat to international security given terrorist activity there."
It came after a French military helicopter pilot was killed as his country launched attacks against Islamist groups and a failed attempt to release a hostage.
Lt Damien Boiteux, 41, was killed during operations against rebels in Mali, in what appears to be a dramatic new western military intervention in the former French colony.
Mr Hollande has ordered an increase in domestic security in the aftermath of military operations in Mali and in Somalia.
He was responding to the risk of Islamist attack after French forces intervened against militants.
French commandos were engaged in fierce battle with al-Shabaab militants in the Somalian town of Bulo-Marer, about 70 miles south of Mogadishu, during a night time raid to rescue a hostage.
Frenchman Denis Allex, who was kidnapped in July 2009, was also believed to have died, according to the French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
"During this intense combat, one of our pilots... was fatally wounded," said Mr Le Drian.
The operation had destroyed a rebel command centre, he said, adding that there had been three strikes on rebel targets overnight.
France was compelled to act quickly to stop the Islamist offensive which could allow "a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe," the minister said.
A second solider was also missing after the operation.A statement released by al-Shabaab claimed to have captured an injured solider.
Human Rights Watch reported 10 civilians were killed in fighting in the central Mali city of Konna. They included three children who drowned trying to cross a river to safety, the group said.
Special forces were among hundreds of French troops and Malian government soldiers who drove rebels out of the town on Saturday, turning back a rebel advance.
Britain and America announced their support for the operation, ordered by Mr Hollande after the Islamists threatened to break out of their northern stronghold and invade the south of the country.
Mali's fragile government had begged for help from France after Islamists drove their army out of the northern town of Konna on Thursday.
It was the fiercest fighting in the Saharan nation since rebels grabbed control of a vast territory bigger than France nine months ago.
An international taskforce was being prepared and was expected to go into action later this year against the rebels. But after Konna was seized, French forces were ordered into action, apparently supported by African armies.
Mr Hollande said he ordered the operation at the request of President Dioncounda Traore, Mali's president, who has declared a state of emergency.
The French president described the rebels as terrorist groups, drug traffickers and extremists, and said they "show a brutality that threatens us all." He said the operation would last "as long as necessary."
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that Senegal and Nigeria also responded to the appeal for help to counter the militants.
Residents in central Mali said they had seen Western military personnel arriving in the area, with planes landing at a nearby airport throughout the night.
Sanda Abou Moahmed, a spokesman for the main rebel Ansar Dine group, mocked the Malian president for calling French troops into their former colony.
"While Dioncounda Traore asked for help from France, we ask for guidance from Allah and from other Muslims in our sub-region because this war has become a war against the crusaders," he said by telephone from Timbuktu.
For the past nine months militants have ruled the north of Mali, a lawless desert region where kidnapping has flourished.
There are 6,000 French citizens in Mali, and they have been urged to leave. Kidnappers currently hold seven French hostages in the nation.
A Mali army official said that Islamist militants had been driven out of Konna. Lt. Col. Diarran Kone said on Saturday that the military did not yet control the city and were still searching for any hidden Islamist extremist elements there.
"The Islamists have been chased out of the city of Konna. We are doing sweeps of the city to find any hidden Islamist extremist elements," said Lt. Col. Kone.
"The full recovery of the city is too early to determine as we do not yet control the city, and we remain vigilant."
The operation in Mali is the first military intervention under the leadership of President Hollande, just weeks after he pulled France's last combat troops out of Afghanistan, ending an increasingly unpopular 11-year presence there.
France was a leading force in the NATO operation against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi's forces in 2011.
Also that year, France played a driving role in an international military intervention to oust Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to leave power after disputed elections.
Source: By Telegraph reporter - 13 January 2013
Photo: A Royal Air Force C-17 Globemaster comes into land at RAF Brize Norton. (Photo by GETTY)