Speaking in parliament today Mark Simmonds said:
With permission Mr Speaker I would like to make a statement on Mali and on the United Kingdom limited support to the French military deployment to assist the Government of Mali. On 10 January, Mali’s Islamist rebel groups, including significant terrorist elements, moved south from their northern strongholds and captured the town of Konna. From there, they posed a danger to Mali’s second and strategically important garrison of Mopti and potentially to its capital, Bamako. 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. As a responsible member of the Security Council, we must support the region in limiting the danger of instability in that part of Africa, threatening UK interests.
Mr Speaker, this latest violence follows a year of instability in Mali. In January 2012 Tuareg nationalist rebels under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) reignited a long standing armed rebellion against the Malian state. Fighting opportunistically alongside the MNLA, but with a very different agenda, were two terrorist groups, Al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). Another mainly Tuareg group with an Islamist agenda and strong ties to the terrorist groups, Ansar Dine, also fought against Malian troops. In March 2012, Mali experienced a coup d’etat from army officers concerned that the Malian government was not responding effectively to the threat from these northern groups. Shortly afterwards, Islamist rebels took advantage of the instability caused by the coup to establish control of the north of the country. Following strong pressure from the Economic Community of West Africa States, the military junta then passed control to an interim civilian led government.
With the international community, the UK has been concerned by the potential for terrorist groups to establish a safe haven in northern Mali which, if left unchecked, could pose a threat to Europe and the UK, as well as our interests in the region. Together with the international community, the UK has been promoting an effective political process in Mali, which includes a road map to democratic elections and a mediation process between the Malian Government and the northern political groups. Both the political and the military tracks – and, in the longer term, economic development - must contribute to a strategy to strengthen the whole region and make it less vulnerable to humanitarian and political shocks.
The United Nations Security Council met for an emergency session on 10 January to discuss the movement of extremist forces south. The Council concluded that recent events posed a direct threat to international stability and security. Furthermore they emphasised the urgent need to counter the increasing terrorist threat and reiterated their call to Member States to assist the settlement of the crisis in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2085, issued on 20 December 2012.
In response to the statement by the United Nations Security Council, and in the light of fast-emerging threat to the city of Mopti, the Government of Mali made a direct request to the Government of France for assistance. France commenced the deployment of a military contingent on 11 January. The Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for Defence and the Chief of the Defence Staff discussed the situation with their French counterparts on 11 January. On the afternoon of 12 January the United Kingdom received a French request for a limited military logistic support to their deployment to Mali. The Prime Minister spoke to President Hollande later that evening. They discussed the deteriorating situation in Mali and the importance of i) limiting civilian casualties; ii) expediting the deployment of regional forces; and iii) the importance of co-ordinating international efforts effectively. During that phone call, and on the basis of advice provided by the Ministry of Defence, the Prime Minister agreed to the French request for limited logistic support and directed the Chief of the Defence Staff to make aircraft available.
I wish to inform the House that 2 x C17 transport aircraft have been assigned to assist in the deployment. Additionally, a small detachment of technical personnel has deployed to Bamako airport to assist with the reception of UK aircraft. I am informed by my MOD colleagues that on arrival in Paris one of the aircraft has faced technical problems, which engineers are currently working on. My MOD colleagues will provide additional information on this in due course. In the coming days, the African-led force – AFISMA – will begin deploying to Mali to bolster the Malian forces towards the aim of restoring Mali’s territorial integrity.
Separately, the EU is considering a military training mission to help build the capacity of the Malian forces. As the December European Council made clear the Mission has a clear training-only mandate, and no combat role. UK support for the Mission and for the Council decision is currently under parliamentary scrutiny. My Rt Hon Friend the Minister for Europe will discuss this with the European Scrutiny Committee on 16 January. The EU training mission will support and is in line with UNSCRs on Mali.
I would like to reassure the House that British forces will not undertake a combat role in Mali. The Prime Minister has authorised a limited logistical deployment following a direct request from one of our closest allies. The National Security Council will meet tomorrow and will be briefed on the latest developments in Mali. Government Ministers, alongside the Prime Minister’s Special Representative for the Sahel, the Honourable Member for Eddisbury, will work with the French Government, the region and international actors like the UN to put in place both the short term resolution to the crisis, as well as the longer term conditions for security and economic development. The UN Security Council will meet again this afternoon to discuss the crisis.
Mr Speaker, the House will no doubt be concerned about the humanitarian situation in the region, and what the UK is doing to alleviate that situation. The UN reports more than 200,000 people have been displaced inside Mali and another 210,000 have fled as refugees to the region. In addition to the immediate support to France, the UK has contributed £59 million in humanitarian aid to the Sahel region through multilateral organisations. In December 2012 DFID agreed a further £15 million in humanitarian aid to the region. Funds from the UK have been put to work to help the immediate needs of the Malian people.
Finally, I would like to reassure the House that the safety of British Nationals and personnel remains of paramount concern. Our Travel Advice has advised against all travel to Mali since the coup in March 2012. This was updated on 11 January to advise British citizens remaining in Mali to leave by commercial means if possible. Our Embassy in Bamako is in regular constant touch with the British community there, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London is of course working to ensure that contingency measures are in place.
Mr Speaker, the threat posed by the instability in Mali is of grave concern to the UK. We must not allow northern Mali to become a springboard for extremism, and create instability in the wider West African region. The ferocity and fanaticism of the extremists in northern Mali must be not be allowed to sweep unchecked into the country’s capital. France, which has an historic relationship with Mali is quite rightly in the lead. In the coming days we will be focussed on the regional and international diplomacy we must achieve to check this emerging threat.
Read the Foreign Office travel advice for Mali