Ministers today denied Britain was being sucked into the conflict to drive Islamist militants from Mali, as the government committed more troops to the region.
Downing Street announced that up to 200 UK military advisers would be deployed to help train a West African intervention force being prepared to take over from French troops once they have stabilised the situation.
The advisers will be in addition to up to 40 personnel Britain is offering to contribute to a European Union training mission to build up the fledgling Malian army.
At the same time, allies such as the United States will be allowed to fly air-to-air refuelling missions from British air bases in support of French operations, while the loan of one of two RAF C-17 transports assigned to support the mission is to be extended for another three months.
Discussions are also taking place on the possible use of a British roll-on, roll-off ferry to ship heavy armour from France to the region.
However, an offer to establish a joint logistics headquarters in Mali to organise the supply of equipment to the French troops was turned down by Paris.
Nevertheless, the move was seen as an indication of Prime Minister David Cameron’s determination to do all he can to help the French, short of sending British combat troops.
With around 90 UK personnel already committed in the region, with the C-17s and an RAF Sentinel R1 surveillance aircraft operating out of Dakar, Senegal, it could take the numbers involved to more than 300.
A former head of the army, General Sir Mike Jackson, backed the government’s position but warned that nations involved might face “protracted guerrilla warfare”.
“It doesn’t really surprise me that the British government feels it needs to be seen to be helping,” he said.
“We cannot let states fail, because we know from recent history that failed states just lead to really difficult circumstances, instability.” He added: “What Mali and France, and indeed other countries who may choose to assist may face, of course, is protracted guerrilla warfare taking place away from conurbations.”
In the Commons, there was concern among MPs that Britain was being drawn inexorably into a wider conflict.
Responding to an urgent question from Tory back-bencher John Baron, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond rejected charges of “mission creep”, insisting support for France was in Britain’s national interest.
“The UK has a clear interest in the stability of Mali and ensuring its territory does not become an ungoverned space available for al-Qaeda and its associates to organise attacks on the West,” he said.
“It is not our intention to deploy combat troops. We are very clear about the risks of mission creep. We have defined very carefully the support we are willing to provide.”
Former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who chairs the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, warned there was “every probability” of years of “asymmetrical conflict” in Mali unless a political solution was found.
Tory back-bencher Sir Peter Tapsell said: “The more frequently western forces intervene in Muslim countries, the greater will be the spread of jihadism and the higher the threat of terrorism in this country.”
For Labour, shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy expressed concern at the way the mission had expanded so rapidly.
“The UK commitment to Mali has grown from lending the French two transport aircraft to the deployment of perhaps hundreds of troops to the region,” he said. “UK trainers may be non-combat, but that does not mean they are without risk.”
Mr Hammond insisted no British personnel would be deployed to Mali unless adequate protection measures were in place.
He disclosed that a small number of British advisers had been dispatched to anglophone countries in the region, such as Nigeria, which are expected to contribute to the African-led International Mission to Mali, to discuss training requirements.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “We think the right way to do this is for regionally-led forces to take the lead.”
Meanwhile, Pentagon officials indicated the US was considering establishing a drone base in the region – most probably in Niger – to increase intelligence-gathering.