Britain will help rescue up to 30,000 starving refugees trapped by jihadist maniacs in northern Iraq, David Cameron said yesterday.
The Prime Minister returned 24 hours early from holiday to say the RAF will join a US-led mission to airlift the desperate members of the Yazidi sect – helped by special forces units.
It was confirmed last night that SAS and SBS troops are already on the ground, supported by specialist signals and reconnaissance forces.
Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, Britain’s trade envoy to Iraq, said they had been in place for at least six weeks.
The refugees will be flown off the barren Sinjar mountain range and taken to camps in safe havens elsewhere in Iraq.
Military planners have recommended that Apache attack helicopters escort the giant Chinook helicopters earmarked for the key role of ferrying up to 60 Yazidis at a time.
The twin-rotor Chinook is seen as vulnerable to attack, especially if it is required to land on exposed mountainsides to pick up the frail and weak. Islamic State fighters have captured missiles capable of bringing down military aircraft.
Contingency plans drawn up for defence chiefs – to be presented to ministers – say the deployment of the Apache would provide the best form of security.
They also say a protection force of more than 200 soldiers could be needed to protect UK aircraft on the ground. More than 100 US marines and special forces landed on Mount Sinjar yesterday to organise an escape route for the refugees.
American special forces have been on the mountain for some days, assessing the military and humanitarian situation and guiding air strikes against Islamic State fighters in the valleys.
The US had an air base at the top of Mount Sinjar for much of the Iraq war and the terrain of the 45-mile ridgeline is well known to special operations units.
Mr Cameron made his announcement after chairing a meeting at Number 10 of the COBRA emergency committee. Despite pleas from MPs, he insisted there was no need to recall Parliament to discuss the crisis – the option will be kept ‘under review’.
He dismissed calls from former defence secretary Liam Fox to directly arm Kurdish forces or join the US in air strikes against Islamic State fighters.
Instead, four British Chinooks are likely to ferry humanitarian supplies – and weapons supplied by other countries to Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who are spearheading the fight against Islamic State.
Tens of thousands of people from the minority Yazidi population are trapped in the mountains, having fled Islamic State fighters murdering anyone in their path.
Mr Cameron praised the work so far of the RAF in bringing relief but added: ‘We need a plan to get these people off that mountain and get them to a place of safety.
‘I can confirm that detailed plans are now being put in place and are under way and that Britain will play a role in delivering them.’
Mr Cameron declined to give any details of the mission.
British Tornado jets are due to carry out reconnaissance missions and four Chinook helicopters were yesterday sent to the region ready for possible deployment.
Two Apaches are on standby but it is understood there is concern that the deployment of the attack helicopter might be seen by some as ‘an aggressive step’ when the Government is stressing the UK is only involved in humanitarian operations.
Downing Street said Britain will limit itself to transporting into Iraqi Kurdistan arms supplied by other countries. ‘Our focus remains on alleviating the dire humanitarian situation,’ said a spokesman.
Mr Cameron had telephone conversations with fellow world leaders to work up plans for the rescue mission. France announced it would supply weapons to the Kurds.
In Washington the Obama administration was forced to defend itself against accusations of mission creep after admitting it was considering a direct role for US forces in creating a ‘humanitarian corridor’ for the evacuation.
‘The president is open to recommendations in which the United States is helping to facilitate the removal of these people from the mountain,’ said National Security Council spokesman, Ben Rhodes.
Dr Fox, who yesterday wrote a Mail article to demand Britain join US air strikes against Islamist militants, said we must not be seen as a ‘reluctant ally’.
‘We’ve been too slow to act over Iraq. We have seen ISIS gaining strength for some time and we need to be very clear they pose a very real threat to both the short-term interests of those in the region and the long-term interests more widely including our own,’ he told the BBC.
Mark Field, a Conservative member of the Commons intelligence and security committee, said Britain may end up having to send in ground troops.
He called on the Government to ‘level’ with the public about the UK’s potential involvement in Iraq and said he expects substantial numbers of refugees to be offered asylum in the West.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.