Britain is considering sending about 200 non-combat troops to help the military operation against Islamist militants in Mali, with a decision expected within days, media reports said on Tuesday.
This would likely include a small number deployed to Mali itself, as part of an EU training mission. A larger number would help train West African forces in the region to join the battle alongside the French and Malian troops.
Prime Minister David Cameron called President Francois Hollande on Sunday to say Britain was “keen” to provide further help to French forces in Mali.
But his Downing Street office declined to give more details other than to stress that, as more than a decade of conflict in Afghanistan finally approached its end, Britain would not be deploying combat troops to another war zone.
Asked about the latest reports on Tuesday, a Downing Street spokeswoman told AFP: “We're not commenting on troops on the ground.”
Amid reports that an announcement could come later on Tuesday, or at least within the coming days, she said planning for further assistance “really depends on the discussions with the French”.
Britain's national security advisor Kim Darroch was in Paris on Monday for talks on what London could do to help, after already sending a Sentinel surveillance plane and two C-17 transport planes to assist French forces.
The Guardian and Mirror newspapers said the 200 troops would include tens deployed as part of an EU mission to train Malian forces, the rest in neighbouring countries to help train a regional intervention force.
The Daily Mail said those involved would be drawn from infantry regiments, logistics and signals corps, with 40 going to Mali to join the EU mission.
Nearly 8 000 African troops from Chad and the west African grouping ECOWAS are expected to take over from the French troops, which went in 19 days ago.
The 500-strong EU mission will provide instruction to the Malian army on command and control, logistics, civilian protection and humanitarian law. It will have no combat role and be made up of soldiers from 10 EU nations.
Asked about the EU mission in the House of Commons last week, Cameron said that “if there were a British contribution to it, it would be in the tens, not in the hundreds.
“It is a training mission, not a combat mission,” he stressed, seeking to avoid any comparisons with Britain's military action in Afghanistan.
“The lead on this will clearly be taken by the French, who have the greatest interest in rapidly training up west African forces to replace the French forces that are currently in action in Mali.”
In his phone call with Hollande, Cameron explained “that we are keen to continue to provide further assistance where we can, and depending on what French requirements there may be”, a Downing Street spokesman told reporters on Monday. - Sapa-AFP