British foreign minister pledges support in Mali visit

British Foreign Secretary William Hague vowed continued support for Mali's fight against Islamist militants as he visited the west African country on Monday, his ministry said.

The Foreign Office said Hague had met with Mali's president and prime minister as well as French-backed African troops fighting the rebels during the one-day visit, which was not announced before his arrival for security reasons.

"The evolving threat from terrorist groups in Mali has necessitated an urgent international response to help the Malians restore their territorial integrity and deny terrorists a safe haven in their country," said Hague.

"I welcome the progress made by French, Malian and African military forces in the north of Mali. The UK will continue to support this tough security response, including through the EU training mission."

French and African troops are currently hunting down Islamist rebels who were driven from northern Mali's main cities by a lightning French-led offensive launched in mid-January.

Hague, the first British foreign secretary to visit Mali, met with the commander of the African-led AFISMA force as well as British soldiers supporting the C17 transport plane which Britain has loaned to France for the operation.

Britain is not sending combat troops to Mali, but it is supplying 40 personnel for the European Union training mission in the country and up to 200 for a separate training force in English-speaking west African nations.

It has also supplied a surveillance plane to help French troops.

Hague called for a "more inclusive" political process in Mali as it struggles to restore constitutional rule in the wake of the March 22 coup that led to the rebellion in the north.

The conflict has heightened ethnic tensions in Mali after Tuareg rebels, a traditionally nomadic north African people, teamed up with Islamist extremists in northern Mali.

"Progress on reconciliation will be vital for lasting stability in Mali," said Hague after meeting with members of the Tuareg community on Monday.

Mali is due to hold presidential elections in July, but critics say this is too soon for a country that is still battling an insurgency and where hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes.