My Lords, the UK has regular and frequent discussions with the Algerian Government on the situation in Mali. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary discussed Mali and the Sahel when he met Algeria’s Foreign Minister, Mourad Medelci, in London on 21 November. The Prime Minister’s special representative for the Sahel, Stephen O’Brien, MP, visited Algiers from 6 to 8 December for further discussions on the situation in Mali. Alistair Burt, the FCO Minister for the Middle East and north Africa, also discussed the Sahel with the Algerian Minister for the Overseas Community, Dr Belkacem Sahli, on 29 November.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy for Algeria. Given the appalling humanitarian and security crisis in Mali, does my noble friend agree that if at all possible there should be a regional solution to this problem, whether it is done diplomatically or by military means, to resolve what is an increasingly tragic situation? Does my noble friend further agree that, as the bulk of the income obtained by these terrorist fanatics is from the drugs trade and kidnapping, the resolute attitude of the Algerian Government, which is simply not to pay ransoms, should be applauded and appreciated?
My Lords, there has to be a regional resolution to this problem. The northern borders of Mali are artificial lines drawn on maps in largely uninhabited areas and these groups clearly go across them with a great deal of ease. The Tuareg, one of the main sets of tribes involved in the conflict, live in southern Algeria, south-western Libya, northern Mali, and so on. Therefore, there has to be a regional solution. This cannot be resolved by one or two states alone.
My Lords, what plans do the Government have to develop stability and security throughout a unitary Mali by advocating that the grievances of the Tuareg should be addressed en route to a democratic unified Mali and by providing succour to the probably 400,000 refugees expected to result from a proposed military intervention by ECOWAS forces?
My Lords, the figures I have show that there is something approaching that number of displaced people—those who are internally displaced or who have moved across the borders already. Therefore, we already have a rather desperate situation. Reinstating a unified Mali is not entirely easy. Mali armed forces as they currently exist are small, weak and underequipped. Nevertheless, some of them are in effect in charge of the Government and have just replaced the Prime Minister.
Does the Minister agree that there are considerable British interests in Mali, not least through the humanitarian organisations? Would it not be better to encourage and reinforce civil society and better governance in Mali itself rather than even contemplating armed intervention?
My Lords, the noble Earl knows well that encouraging the growth of civil society is a slow and long-term business. We have a rather immediate crisis which, if I may remind noble Lords, is partly an unanticipated result of the collapse of the Gaddafi regime. Many of those who sparked off the current crisis were Tuareg soldiers in the Libyan army returning from Libya after the fall of Gaddafi with some very effective heavy weapons.