British soldiers have arrived in Mali to join the world’s most dangerous UN peacekeeping mission in the war-torn west African country.
The 300 troops from the Light Dragoons and Royal Anglian Regiment will work alongside 16,000 peacekeepers from 56 different countries.
Their role will be to provide specialist long-range reconnaissance for the United Nations mission, gathering intelligence in areas of the country hard to reach.
In recent months, security has deteriorated in Mali.
Two-and-a-half thousand civilians were killed over the past year and the effects of climate change – rising temperatures and migrating populations – have put the wider Sahel region under more stress.
The UN mission has been attacked more than 130 times since it began in 2013, with 220 soldiers killed and hundreds injured.
A total of 5,100 French forces, also based in Gao, are fighting a counter-extremism conflict against jihadist groups including Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM).
They have had some successes, killing al Qaeda’s North Africa chief Abdelmalek Droukdel in June this year and last month, French forces took out another senior leader Bah Ag Moussa – who was thought to be behind attacks on international troops.
The UK has provided three RAF Chinook helicopters to that mission – they fly in a non-combat capacity.
Although the UN mission is separate, any intelligence gathered by the British soldiers could be passed on to French counterparts.
While the British will wear the distinctive blue UN berets and deploy in a peacekeeping role, they will be exposed to threats from roadside IEDs and attacks by insurgents.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: “As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, this deployment is a demonstration of our firm commitment to peacekeeping and the importance we place on improving security in the Sahel by protecting local communities.
“Our land forces are the best in the world, and we are one of a small handful of nations able to provide this specialist capability in a challenging environment which will help prevent the spread of conflict across the region.”
Mali is a vast country, the fifth largest in Africa, on the southern borders of the Sahara desert.
The soldiers will be operating in tough environments, including on sand dunes and wadis, and often in extreme heat or heavy rains.
In August, Malian forces staged a bloodless coup against former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. A military-led caretaker government is now in power ahead of fresh elections.