Defence chiefs have warned against Britain becoming enmeshed in the mission against Islamists in Mali, pointing out that any action could be drawn-out and require significantly greater resources than have so far been deployed.
The most senior commanders are due to make their apprehension clear at a meeting of the National Security Council with the Prime Minister today. They have the backing of the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond.
Following three days of French air strikes in Mali, the Islamists launched a counter-offensive yesterday showing they are not a spent force. They attacked government positions in the central town of Diabaly after crossing a river in small groups under cover of darkness. British resources are already stretched, with two RAF transport aircraft having to be diverted from Afghanistan to carry French equipment equipment to Mali. There is a shortage of such aircraft and they are being used to their full capacity. One of the Boeing C-17 Globemasters, hailed by David Cameron yesterday as "our most advanced and capable transport plane", broke down a few minutes later in Paris, en route to Africa.
Some of the military top brass took part in operations in another West African country, Sierra Leone, where prompt action by the then-Brigadier David Richards, now the Chief of the Defence Staff, stopped rebel fighters from taking over the capital, Freetown. But a more protracted campaign was needed, including the rescue of British soldiers kidnapped by one guerrilla group, the West Side Boys.
Defence sources pointed out that the French had already had to revise their original plans for intervention after meeting more resistance than expected. François Hollande's government has sent extra troops and asked for help from the US and Denmark as well as the UK. About 1,800 other soldiers will be sent by Mali's neighbours. Defence sources dismissed reports that British military instructors were being sent immediately to Mali's capital, Bamako, and that unmanned drones were on stand-by.
Mark Simmonds, the Africa minister, last night ruled out a deployment of British troops alongside French forces in Mali. In a statement to the Commons he said Britain's role would be "limited" to logistical support.
"The Prime Minister has made categorically clear that the initial supporting deployment will be for a period of one week," Mr Simmonds said.
"He has also made clear that there will be no combat troops from the UK involved and we have no plans to provide more military assistance."
Mr Cameron said: "There is a very dangerous Islamist regime allied to al-Qa'ida in control of the north of [Mali]. It was threatening the south… and we should support the action 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.'"
Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister, said France had "no desire to act alone" and that an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers would be held this week.
The battle for Mail: how the fighting has escalated
10 January 2013: Islamist groups capture Konna. Mali’s interim President calls on France to help. Witnesses report arrival of foreign troops and weapons at military base in Sevare, 37 miles to the south.
11 January Government troops launch counter-offensive against Islamists backed by France, Nigeria and Senegal. President Hollande confirms French troops are ‘actively supporting’ operation.
12 January Dozens of Islamists killed as Konna is retaken by Malian army. French pilot is killed after helicopter is shot down in the fighting.
13 January France targets Islamist bases around the northern city of Gao. Niger, Togo and Benin say they will send troops, while Britain pledges logistical support. French warplanes target rebel positions near Daibaly, 250 miles from Bamako.
14 January Second British support plane leaves RAF Brize Norton but is delayed by technical fault in Paris. Islamists retake Diabaly. France admits things are ‘progressing well’ in the east but not in the west. Witnesses report rebels advancing from Mauritanian border where they had retreated under French air attack.