UK troops to train Mali forces battling militants
DEFENCE Secretary Philip Hammond has ruled out Plymouth Royal Marines being among the UK troops sent to West Africa to support the fight against Islamist militants in Mali.
The Cabinet Minister said he did not see a role for Stonehouse-based 3 Commando Brigade when pressed in the Commons.
It came as Downing Street announced the deployment of around 330 military personnel to the region in support of the French-led mission.
Ministers deny Britain is being sucked into the conflict to drive Islamist militants from Mali.
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But up to 200 UK soldiers will be sent to neighbouring African countries to help train a regional intervention force, while up to 40 military advisers will form part of a European Union training mission to build up the Malian army.
There are also 70 personnel with the RAF Sentinel surveillance aircraft, and 20 with a C17 transport plane.
But Number 10 insist British troops would not be involved in combat operations against the insurgents.
Speaking at Westminster, Tory MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport Oliver Colvile asked the Secretary of State: "Does he envisage 3 Commando Brigade playing a part in this initiative?"
Responding, Mr Hammond gave a decisive: "No."
Rejecting charges of "mission creep", Mr Hammond insisted support for the French was in Britain's national interest.
He said: "The UK has a clear interest in the stability of Mali and ensuring its territory does not become an ungoverned space available for al-Qaeda and its associates to organise attacks on the West.
"It is not our intention to deploy combat troops. We are very clear about the risks of mission creep. We have defined very carefully the support that we are willing to provide to the French and the Malian authorities."
Labour's Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy expressed concern at the way the mission had expanded so rapidly.
"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," he said. "UK trainers may be non-combat but that does not mean they are without risk."
Mr Hammond insisted no British personnel would be deployed to Mali unless adequate force protection measures were in place.
Meanwhile, allies such as the United States will be allowed to fly air-to-air refuelling missions from British airbases in support of French operations, while the loan of one of the two RAF C-17 transporters assigned to support the mission is to be extended for another three months.
Discussions are also taking place on the possible use of a British roll-on, roll-off ferry to ship heavy armour from France to the region. However an offer to establish a joint logistics headquarters in Mali to organise the supply of equipment to the French troops was turned down by Paris.