CRACK British forces have deployed to the world's most dangerous peacekeeping mission.
The first of 300 troops reached the deadly badlands of northern Mali – where al-Qaeda’s allies are fighting ISIS, and armed groups terrorise civilians.
The troops are trained for desert patrols like the legendary Long Range Desert Group that launched the SAS in World War Two.
But fears over their safety – and a chronic shortage of helicopters – mean they will be confined to the area near their base in Gao for the first stage of their mission.
They join a force of more than 15,000 UN peacekeepers, including Chinese and Iranian troops, in a country five times bigger than Britain.
There are only 14 choppers for the whole UN force, after a troop-carrying Puma blew over in a sandstorm and had to be flown back to Europe for repairs.
Major General Nick Borton, who is overseeing the UK mission to the arid Sahel region, said they would not do counter terrorism.
Their mandate is to protect civilians and enforce a 2015 peace accord between the corrupt and unpopular Malian government and a cocktail of armed rebels.
“The Sahel is one of the poorest regions on the planet,” Gen Borton said.
“Violent conflict and unprecedented migration to Europe’s borders have once again brought our attention back to this important strategic area.
“This will demonstrate that the British armed forces remain a force for good in the world.”
He said the Light Dragoon Taskforce, who will use open top Jackal vehicles, were “exceptionally well prepared for their mission”.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace the UK had committed to a three year deployment with the UN force known as Minusma.
“This is a dangerous mission,” he said. “We have done all we can to mitigate the risk. Our forces are among the best in the world and they have the right training, equipment and preparation to succeed.”
Last month we told how British troops in Mali would have to stay in their base over fears it is too dangerous.
Ministers increased the number in the force from 250 to 300 but restricted their role just weeks before they set off for West Africa.
The move “stunned” the UN peacekeeping mission led by Lt Gen Dennis Gyllensporre, who said he did not need more troops in camps.
The SAS has been in Mali for months, assessing risks from hundreds of groups, including ISIS.
Mali, one of the world's poorest countries, was thrown into even deeper chaos by a coup in August.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita resigned after mutinying troops held him at gunpoint, and former defence minister Bah Ndaw was sworn in as acting leader.
ISIS has taken over vast swathes of Africa as it tries to establish a "new Caliphate".
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