Technical fault delays British military plane bound to assist French efforts to halt al-Qa’ida-linked rebels in Mali, just minutes after David Cameron hails its capabilities

Downing Street said UK troops will not engage in combat operations in Mali  but transport planes will provide logistical assistance

A technical fault has delayed the departure of a British plane loaded with military equipment and foreign troops bound for Mali.

The C-17, which has been hailed by David Cameron as “our most advanced and capable transport plane”, had been due to the take-off for the west African country as part of British team supporting French efforts to halt an advance by rebels linked to al-Qa'ida.

It set off from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire yesterday and was being loaded with military equipment at a French base last night but a “minor technical fault” has delayed its departure to Mali.

News of the delay came shortly after the Prime Minister made the comments about the military transport aircraft’s capabilities.

The huge four-engine jet can carry large equipment, supplies and troops directly to small airfields and is known for its robustness and ability to travel long distances.

The problem is thought to be a short-term one and the plane is expected to be ready to depart later today, the spokesman added.

Mr Cameron told BBC Radio 4's Today that Britain would also share intelligence with France as part of its efforts to tackle the “dangerous Islamist regime”.

“I spoke to (French president) Francois Hollande over the weekend and offered the use of two C-17 transport planes - our most advanced and capable transport planes - because France is a strong ally and friend of Britain but (also because) what is being done in Mali is very much in our interests,” he said.

“There is a very dangerous Islamist regime allied to al-Qa'ida in control of the north of that country. It was threatening the south of that country and we should support the action that the French have taken.

”So we were first out of the blocks, as it were, to say to the French 'We'll help you, we'll work with you and we'll share what intelligence we have with you and try to help you with what you are doing'.“

Meanwhile in the latest setback, the al-Qa'ida-linked extremists overran the garrison village of Diabaly in the centre of the country. French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the rebels "took Diabaly after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army that couldn't hold them back."

The Malian military is in disarray and has let many towns fall with barely a shot fired since the insurgency began almost a year ago in the north-west African nation.

Downing Street insisted UK troops will not engage in combat operations in Mali but said transport planes will provide logistical assistance.

Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande have agreed that the situation in Mali poses a real threat to international security given terrorist activity there.

Hundreds of French troops were deployed on Saturday after state forces lost control of the strategically important town of Konna to Islamists last Thursday. The rebels seized large parts of northern Mali last spring.

Last week President Hollande sent French commandos into Somalia in a failed attempt to rescue hostage Denis Allex, who was kidnapped in July 2009.

Two soldiers and Mr Allex are believed to have died in the bid, with Paris insisting the two operations are entirely separate.

France’s terrorist threat level has been raised over fears of reprisals from extremists.

Mr Cameron has expressed ”deep concern“ about the rebel advances, saying: ”I welcome the military assistance France has provided to the Malian government, at their request, to halt this advance.

“These developments show the need to make urgent progress in implementing UN Security Council resolutions on Mali, and ensure that military intervention is reinforced by an inclusive political process leading to elections and a return to full civilian rule.

”I would also like to send personal condolences to the families of the French hostage killed in Somalia and those of the two soldiers either killed or missing in the rescue attempt.“

Africa Minister Mark Simmonds has indicated that British personnel could play a role in training the Malian army in addition to the logistical support already announced.

He told Sky News' Murnaghan programme: ”We may well, through a European Union mechanism, provide training and support for the Malian army to give them strength to bring back the integrity of the Malian country in totality.

“It's absolutely essential, as part of our obligations as a permanent member of the Security Council, that we provide assistance when we are requested.”

He said there was a “thoroughly unpleasant regime” in the north of the country with “raping and sexual violence taking place” and children being forced into the military.

Challenged over whether British involvement would increase the risk of reprisals, Mr Simmonds said: “We are only providing limited logistical support in response to a French request - two planes.

”The terrorists have made their plans very clear before intervention anyway, and before we responded to the French request.

“It's absolutely right that there's a regional solution, which is why Ecowas, the regional African organisation, are going to be at the forefront of this.”

The Government's National Security Council (NSC) is set to discuss the situation in Mali when it meets tomorrow.

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