Tuesday, 22 January 2013

SAS and spy planes set for Mali as Britain offer more support in battle against 'terrorist scourge' of Al Qaeda

Britain is to send spy planes, unmanned drones and special forces to Mali to ‘find and dismantle’ the Al Qaeda network behind the slaughter in Algeria.

In an escalation of the UK’s support for French forces fighting the militants in the African country, David Cameron said he would commit ‘intelligence and counter terrorism assets’.

The Prime Minister said the UK must ‘act with an iron resolve’ to tackle what he called a ‘generational struggle’ against the ‘scourge of terrorism’ after the Algerian attack.

At a meeting of the National Security Council today, Mr Cameron is set to approve plans to send manned Sentinel R1 spy planes and Reaper drones to operate in the skies over Mali from an American base in neighbouring Burkina Faso.

They will target Al Qaeda affiliated groups including the Blood Battalion, led by one-eyed Mokhtar Belmokhtar and behind the atrocities at the BP gas facility.

Mr Cameron will also give the green light to sending around 20 soldiers – including members of the SAS – to join a 500-strong force to train Malian troops and provide force protection.

The UK is also considering offering to refuel French fighter aircraft with VC10 and Tristar planes operating out of Gibraltar and Cyprus.

And two C-17 transport aircraft, already ferrying French hardware to the war zone, will be made available for several months if necessary.

The Prime Minister explained he is prepared to commit military assets because the Sahel region of Northern Africa is ‘becoming a magnet for jihadists who pose a threat to Britain’. ‘This murderous violence requires a strong security response,’he said.

‘We will contribute British intelligence and counter-terrorism assets to an international effort to find and dismantle the network that planned and ordered the brutal assault.’

But a ComRes poll for ITV News last night suggested Mr Cameron has not yet secured public backing for another foreign military adventure that already shows signs of ‘mission creep’.

By a margin of 36 per cent to 23 per cent, voters think events in Mali could threaten Britain, but just 18 per cent want to see British ground troops committed to the fight.

Just one in four voters says the UK should offer whatever military support is necessary and 41 per cent think Britain should not play ‘any role’.

In a stark warning, Mr Cameron told MPs: ‘Together with our partners in the region, we are in the midst of a generational struggle against an ideology which is an extreme distortion of the Islamic faith, and which holds that mass murder and terror are not only acceptable but necessary.

‘We must tackle this poisonous thinking at home and abroad and resist the ideologues' attempt to divide the world into a clash of civilisations.’

He said Britain must pursue a ‘patient, intelligent but tough approach’ to defeat terrorism and ensuring national security. He warned a military response would not be sufficient, and urged governments in north and west Africa to work together to defeat terrorist 'franchises' in the region.

Mr Cameron promised that during the UK's chairmanship of the G8 this year he would put 'terrorism and how we respond to it... right at the top of the agenda'.

He told MPs that there were 800 employees working at the In Amenas site at the time of the attack, including around 135 foreign nationals. At least 12 were killed with at least a further 20 unaccounted for and feared dead, he said.
'The Algerian Prime Minister has said today 37 foreign hostages were killed. The number of terrorists was over 30. Most were killed during the incident but a small number are in Algerian custody.'

The first of the British victims to be officially named was 46-year-old Paul Morgan, reported to be a former Foreign Legion soldier and Gulf War veteran who was in charge of security at the In Amenas plant.

Mr Morgan was described by his mother Marianne, 65, and partner Emma Steele, 36, as a 'true gentleman' who died doing the job he loved.

Kenneth Whiteside, a 59-year-old from Glenrothes, Fife, who lived in Johannesburg with his wife and two daughters, and Garry Barlow, 49, a married father of two from Liverpool, who was a system supervisor for BP at the In Amenas plant, were also killed.

A further three Britons are believed to be dead, Mr Cameron said, along with Carlos Estrada, a Colombian executive for BP who lived in Chelsea.

'Now our most vital work is bringing home those who died. An international team of British, American and Norweigian experts is in close co-operation with the Algerian ministry of justice undertaking the task of formally identifying their bodies,' he said.
'We want this process to happen as swiftly as possible but it will involve some intensive forensic and policing work and so may take some time.'
All 22 British nationals caught up in the attack who either escaped or were freed have been safely returned to Britain, to be debriefed by the police and, of course, reunited with their families.

There was a marked change of tone from Mr Cameron's statement on Friday, when he made clear his unhappiness at not being informed by the Algerian PM about a rescue attempt until it was underway.

Mr Cameron said: 'I am sure the House will understand the challenges that Algeria faced in dealing with over 30 terrorists bent on killing innocent people in a large and extremely remote and dangerous industrial complex.

'This would have been a most demanding task for security forces anywhere in the world and we should acknowledge the resolve shown by the Algerians in undertaking it.'
Labour leader Ed Miliband said the attack in Algeria was 'pre-meditated, cold-blooded murder of the most brutal kind'.
'And behind each lost life is a family of loved ones who are in our thoughts today.'
He said the new threat facing the West was 'more decentralised, more fragmented' and 'taking advantage of the ungoverned spaces and security vacuum in parts of North Africa'.

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