Foreign Secretary William Hague has left the door open to British combat troops being deployed in Mali.
Ministers last week insisted the government was acutely aware of the risk of “mission creep” after it provided assistance to French forces involved in attempts to drive Islamist militants from the region, but insisted there were no plans to put British boots on the ground.
Mr Hague, speaking on television yesterday, said that remained the government’s intention, but sidestepped calls to guarantee that UK troops would not be sucked into the conflict at a later date.
He said: “There are no combat troops at all in this deployment and there are no plans to send combat troops.”
Asked if he could give a commitment that there would never be any combat troops involved, he replied: “You can’t foresee every situation but I can absolutely say we have no plans or current intention to do that.”
Mr Hague also warned the risks from unstable regions meant the world was a more dangerous place than in recent times.
The government is sending 200 UK military advisers to help train a West African intervention force and Britain has offered 40 personnel to a European Union (EU) training mission to build up the fledgling Malian army.
Earlier, former prime minister Tony Blair said Britain was right to intervene in Mali but warned the West faced a “long and messy” fight against al-Qaeda.
He said French president François Hollande had made a “courageous” decision to intervene in Mali.
Speaking on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, Mr Blair said: “We always want in the West, quite naturally, to go in and go out, and think there is a clean result. It’s not going to happen like that. We now know that. It is going to be long and difficult and messy.
“My point is very simple though: if you don’t intervene and let it happen, it is also going to be long, difficult and messy, and possibly a lot worse. It’s a very difficult decision.
“We are certainly talking about a generation. I think a better way to look at it is like the fight the West had over a long period of time with revolutionary Communism.”
Mr Blair also warned that all options should be considered when it came to finding a solution to Syria, warning president Bashar al-Assad that he would eventually be defeated.
He added: “I do think that there are certain things we could do to strengthen the opposition and make it clear to Assad that in the end he is not going to win this, and he is not going to have a stalemate.
“It will end in defeat and it will end in his going, so the question is that is he prepared to do this on a basis that will allow us some chance to stabilise the country afterwards?
“Otherwise, the risk is that, and you see this from other countries that have been through the process of a revolution, you end up with a situation where the state starts to collapse.
“I don’t think you are ever going to go in in the sense of British troops on the ground but the question is what more you can do to help the opposition.”
Prime Minister David Cameron faced difficult decisions to fight terrorism, Mr Blair said, but warned the cost of standing aside would be far greater.
Britain at least had to try and “shape” events in the Middle East, he added, saying that in Syria there was already a danger the more extreme elements of the opposition forces fighting Mr Assad’s regime would take over.
Mr Blair said: “I think we should acknowledge how difficult these decisions are.
“Sometimes in politics you come across a decision which the choice is very binary, you go this way or that way and whichever way you go the choice is very messy.
“If we engage with this, not just military but over a long period of time, in trying to help these countries, it is going to be very, very hard. ”
He said the West could not rely on Russia to change its position on Syria, adding we “don’t want to put all our eggs in that basket”.
Mr Blair said it was also necessary to build “capacity” in countries which needed support to deal with extremism while at the same time fighting al-Qaeda by better educating children in countries where it operated.
There was now an “identifiable ideology” visible in north Africa, the Middle East and central Asia, he added. But the “good news”, Mr Blair said, was that the majority of people in countries affected by al-Qaeda wanted more prosperity.
He said: “My fear is that because this is being driven by an ideology with a very, very strong desire to push out from the borders of wherever they are, if we do disengage we will get a different set of problems further down the line which are more profound and more serious. That’s the choice.”