The British Government is considering providing direct military assistance to international troops fighting Islamist insurgents in Somalia.
Senior Foreign Office sources said discussions had taken place about providing help – including air reconnaissance or support – to African Union troops helping Somalia's weak, American-backed, transitional government.
While the use of ground troops has been explicitly ruled out it is believed there could be some role for Britain following the successful Nato air operation in Libya. As well as air power, SAS and SBS units are stationed with the US-led Horn of Africa Task Force based in Djibouti.
The Somali government, which has been fighting insurgents known as al-Shabaab, has little influence outside the capital Mogadishu.
The number of peacekeeping troops in the country has increased significantly in recent months and British officials are examining how to extend their own influence further. "Certainly in the wake of Libya there are ongoing discussions about what assistance we might be able to provide in Somalia," said one source. "At this stage, the areas we are looking at are equipment and money."
Both the US and French have been actively involved in Somali military operations – the Americans carrying out drone strikes from the southern Ethiopian port of Arba Mich, while the French are ferrying in equipment. A French helicopter-gunship crashed at the southern port of Kismayo, while, it is claimed, providing supporting fire for Kenyans flushing out al-Shabaab positions.
A senior British officer said: "There is no appetite for boots on the ground but there are other options. Any military cost needs to be weighed against the costs of propping up a failed state which is being kept a failed state by this insurgency. Also, the African Union forces can't be there forever, and there may be a role for the UK to train the forces of the TFG [Transitional Federal Government]."
Yesterday the International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell appeared to hint at a greater British involvement. Describing Somalia as a direct threat to the UK's security because it is one of the "most dysfunctional countries in the world" he said: "It is a place from which emanates piracy, drug running, this weight of people trying to come to a more attractive economic shore.
"There are probably more British passport holders engaged in terrorist training in Somalia than in any other country in the world."