LONDON (Reuters) - Britain increased its offer of aid to France and African governments on Tuesday to help them counter Islamist militants in Africa but limited the scope of its support for fear of being dragged into an Afghanistan-style quagmire.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told parliament that up to 240 soldiers could take part in missions to train African troops, and that at least 90 more are already taking part in logistical operations to support French troops fighting in Mali.
“The UK has a clear interest in the stability of Mali and ensuring that its territory does not become an ungoverned space available to al Qaeda and its associates,” Hammond said.
“We are very clear about the risks of mission creep and we have defined very carefully the support we are willing and able to provide,” he added.
British troops will not have a combat role, he stressed.
In a further sign of Britain’s concern over developments in northern Africa, Prime Minister David Cameron will travel to Algeria on Wednesday, his office said.
An Islamist militant attack on Algeria’s In Amenas natural gas complex earlier this month left at least 38 hostages dead, including up to six Britons.
Cameron, who has spoken of a “generational struggle” against Islamist extremists in the region, will meet Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, a British government source said.
After the gas complex assault, Cameron said Britain needed to “thicken” its contacts with Algeria to help the North African state in its “long running battle against terror”.
Britain will withdraw some 9,000 troops from a long and costly mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and the public - squeezed by spending cuts to fix a big budget deficit - has little appetite for another expensive military adventure.
In contrast to previous major military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Britain now says it is better to have limited Western military interventions, and that local forces - with Western backing - should take the lead in ensuring security.
Hammond played down the prospect of long-term Western involvement in Mali, saying that France had assured him of a “short intervention” to stabilise the situation on the ground, and that African and Malian troops would then take over.
Up to 40 of the troops Britain has offered are for a European Union training mission in Mali, and up to 200 are for a regional African Union-led training mission involving anglophone West African countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone.
British logistical and equipment aid to Mali has so far included the use of two C-17 transport planes and a Sentinel surveillance plane based at Dakar in neighbouring Senegal.
In response to a French request on Sunday for more help, Britain said it would also offer a ferry to transport French troops and equipment, and allow France and its allies to use U.S. bases in Britain to refuel aircraft.
Britain has also offered to set up a “Combined Joint Logistics Headquarters” in Mali, but France believes such a facility is not needed for now, Cameron’s spokesman said. (Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn and Tim Castle; editing by Steve Addison)