British troops in Mali are being commanded by a Chinese officer it emerges, as first patrol on UN mission is completed

·4 min read
A Coyote vehicle of the British army Taskforce, on patrol in Mali. - George Christie/British Army
A Coyote vehicle of the British army Taskforce, on patrol in Mali. - George Christie/British Army

British troops are being commanded by a Chinese officer for the first time, it has emerged.

The 300 British troops deployed to counter Islamist violence in Mali will work under a Chinese sector commander as part of the United Nations (UN) force.

Lieutenant Colonel Tom Robinson, Commanding Officer of the Light Dragoons, said the Chinese military had provided a hospital to the UN mission and were responsible for protecting the camp which houses the British troops.

“I work for a Chinese Brigadier who is sector commander,” Lt Col Robinson said.

“He’s a professional guy who I very much enjoy working with.”

It is thought to be the first time British forces have been under command of a Chinese officer, although the Royal Navy has worked alongside the Chinese navy in counter-piracy operations around the horn of Africa.

The news comes as tension between Britain and China, after human rights abuses in Hong Kong, aggressive Chinese sovereignty claims in the Indo-Pacific and questions over the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic, have soured relations between London and Beijing.

Using a range of vehicles including Jackals, Coyotes and Foxhounds, the UK Task Group are deployed to Mali to support the UN peacekeeping Mission MINUSMA.  - George Christie/British Army 
Using a range of vehicles including Jackals, Coyotes and Foxhounds, the UK Task Group are deployed to Mali to support the UN peacekeeping Mission MINUSMA. - George Christie/British Army

The British Taskforce, comprising troops drawn primarily from the Light Dragoons and 2nd Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment, has just successfully completed its first patrol in the West African country.

Around 200 soldiers patrolled in 60 vehicles specially designed to handle the harsh desert conditions.

The initial deployment saw the troops venture only 30 miles into the countryside, an area largely beyond the reach of the Malian authorities. Future patrols are planned to go much further.

“That was an opportunity for us as the first British troops deployed in Mali to really understand how it is we're going to operate,” Lt Col Robinson said.

“We trained in the UK [and] prepared for a long time to make sure we're ready.

“There's nothing like going out of camp for the first time, testing our vehicles on unfamiliar African scrub, meeting the Malian people and really getting that proper feel for what this country is all about and how we can help.”

He said the British patrol had been the first UN peacekeepers encountered by some of the Malian people in the eight years the mission has existed.

The British force consists of 300 troops, drawn mainly from the Light Dragoons and 2nd Bn Royal Anglian Regiment.  - George Christie/British Army
The British force consists of 300 troops, drawn mainly from the Light Dragoons and 2nd Bn Royal Anglian Regiment. - George Christie/British Army

Writing exclusively for the Telegraph in December, the Defence Secretary said it was in the UK’s interests to join the 14,000 UN troops, drawn from 56 countries..

“History tells us that extremist groups opposed to our way of life can thrive in the lawless spaces that spring from the absence of governance, Ben Wallace said.

The UN force is separate from the French-led counter-insurgency mission also in Mali, which is hunting local Islamist groups in the region affiliated to ISIS and al Qaeda.

Britain supports the French mission, called Operation Barkhane, with three Chinook heavy-lift helicopters and around 90 personnel.

The two British missions are entirely separate, but senior commanders accept the fighting groups opposed to Malian and Western forces may not see the difference.

“This is a dangerous country and if we were complacent and we were not taking that threat seriously then my command team and I would be failing our soldiers in not keeping that focus on making sure they are doing everything they can to deter and protect themselves from the people who wish to do us harm,” Lt Col Robinson said.

The force is the first deployment in a three-year commitment by Britain.  - George Christie/British Army
The force is the first deployment in a three-year commitment by Britain. - George Christie/British Army

Speaking as the troops deployed last month, Major General Nick Borton from the MoD's Northwood headquarters accepted the mission was dangerous but said it fitted perfectly into Britain's wider strategy for the region.

He also said it was “a chance to drive reform in United Nations peacekeeping operations”, largely seen as expensive and inefficient.

The UN mission in Mali started in 2013 and French forces deployed on the separate counter-terrorist operation the following year. A peace agreement was signed in 2015 between the Malian government and the many fighting groups.

Mali and the wider Sahel region of West Africa is considered an area of growing Islamist extremism and terrorist violence.

Britain will provide a specialist reconnaissance force for three years as part of the UN deployment.

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