The European Union “could do more” to provide aid to Iraq, David Cameron and Francois Hollande said tonight, as Britain prepares to take part in an international rescue mission to help refugees fleeing Islamic extremists.
The PM and the French president agreed that the need to boost aid should be addressed when EU foreign ministers meet on Friday to discuss the crisis in Iraq, according to Downing Street.
It has also been reported the SAS is on the ground in Iraq, with the Daily Telegraph reporting Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, the trade envoy to Iraq, said British special forces had been working with US troops for “six weeks or more”.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “We do not comment on UK special forces.”
The reported remarks on SAS involvement emerged after Mr Cameron said “detailed plans are now being put in place” for an international mission to rescue Yazidis trapped in the Mount Sinjar region an d that Britain “will play a role in delivering it”.
The PM returned from a family holiday to chair a meeting of the Government’s Cobra emergency committee after which he insisted the UK involvement remained a humanitarian mission.
Mr Cameron is continuing to face calls to directly arm Kurdish forces or join the US in air strikes against Islamic State (IS) extremist fighters.
Another 130 US troops also arrived in Irbil yesterday on what the Pentagon described as a temporary mission to assess the scope of the humanitarian crisis on Sinjar Mountain.
In a series of telephone calls with world leaders, a No 10 spokesman said Mr Cameron and Mr Hollande “agreed that the EU could do more to provide aid and that this should be addressed at this Friday’s Foreign Affairs Council”.
The PM also spoke with President Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government, with No 10 reporting Mr Cameron commended the bravery of Peshmerga forces fighting IS while reiterating the UK’s role in helping the international effort to transport military supplies to Kurdish forces.
The UK will continue aid drops over Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq in the coming days while plans to rescue stranded Yazidis are firmed up, including Britain’s role in the action, No 10 added.
On SAS involvement, Royal United Services Institute senior research fellow Shashank Joshi said the operation to rescue stranded Yazidis would be simpler if US and UK armed forces were on the ground in Iraq.
He said: “It’s easier to neutralise threats, secure landing areas, secure perimeters if you have troops on the ground.
Conservative Sir Richard Ottaway, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told BBC’s Newsnight: “I think the Kurds have made it absolutely clear that the key priority at the moment is security advice, it’s logistics, it’s humanitarian aid, it’s arms and in particular ammunition and that is where the British focus is.”
Told the SAS had gone into Iraq, Sir Richard replied: “As you say, there is a British involvement if the SAS is in there.
“But right now Britain… (has) got armed Tornado aircraft providing back-up to the humanitarian aid and I think that they are very closely involved at the moment and as we sit here I’m quite sure the Ministry of Defence is making assessments as to whether air strikes should be appropriate.”