AUSTRALIA is considering providing military equipment and funding to speed up the deployment of African troops to Mali to quell an Islamist insurgency amid fears the west African nation could become a haven for terrorism.
In a sign the Gillard government means to use Australia's new seat on the UN Security Council to boost its role in tackling hot spots around the world, Foreign Minister Bob Carr said Australia would push to accelerate the mobilisation of African forces, at a meeting of the council on Tuesday.
This may include providing funding and equipment - along with help from other countries - for activities such as clearing improvised explosive devices if that will help get African troops into the strife-torn nation more quickly.
"We're looking at facilitating the earlier deployment of the African force," Senator Carr said. "If the constraints on an earlier deployment are a matter of funding or equipment, Australia could potentially assist in conjunction with other UN member states."
Analysts warn that Mali could become like Afghanistan under the Taliban if the Islamist insurgency in the north - which includes al-Qaeda's north-west African affiliate - is allowed to sweep south and overrun government forces.
Speaking ahead of a special meeting of the Security Council in New York to discuss the Mali crisis, Senator Carr said Australia "strongly supports" the dramatic military intervention by France over the past week.
France is backing the fragile Mali government in its former colony against the Islamic militants in the north of the country, sending fighter planes. Britain has sent C17 military transport planes to help.
France stepped in amid concerns that a planned coalition of Mali's neighbours in Africa - which already has the backing of the UN - could not mobilise its intervention force in time to prevent the Islamists from sweeping south. It was due to be deployed around the middle of this year.
However, the French government has stressed that its own intervention will be short-term only. Troops provided by the west African bloc ECOWAS are considered essential to stabilise Mali in the longer term.
Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said Australia would increasingly be involved in tackling problems in regions beyond Asia as part of its UN spot.
"Two-thirds of the Security Council business in the coming two years is likely to be concerning Africa or the Middle East, so we are rapidly going to have to increase our expertise in some places where we wouldn't normally cover closely, of which Mali will definitely be one," he said.
"That is part of the price of being an active and engaged middle power."
Tobias Feakin, a senior analyst at the institute, said Islamist militants came within 400 kilometres of the Mali capital,
Bamako, last week, before they were beaten back by French planes and Malian government troops.
"The concern is that if that was left alone, you might begin to see the development of the kind of Afghanistan of pre-2001, especially when you've got a group like al-Qaeda in the Maghreb taking advantage," he said.
"It gives them a safe haven for training, indoctrination, and operating in."
Australia took up its two-year seat on the UN's top decisionmaking body on January 1, joining permanent members the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China, as well as nine other rotating members.
It has already stamped its mark, winning a leading role in managing global sanctions against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as against Iran over the rogue nation's nuclear ambitions.
- A British C-17 carrying military equipment and troops bound for Mali was delayed last night due to a technical fault.