The Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, and the most senior commanders are due to make their apprehension clear at a meeting of the National Security Council with the Prime Minister tomorrow.

Following three days of French air strikes in Mali, the Islamists launched a counter-offensive today 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 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. A small team of instructors will be sent much later. Intelligence sharing, which is already taking place, will continue.

Mark Simmonds, the Africa minister, told MPs: “The situation in Mali is a serious concern for the UK. It would not be in our interests to allow a terrorist haven to develop in northern Mali … We must support the region in limiting the danger of instability in that part of Africa, threatening UK interests.”

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.

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 and we’ll share what intelligence we have with you and try to help you with what you are doing’.”

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.

Top brass warn No 10: avoid Mali escalation – The Independent
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