LONDON (Reuters) - The European Union plans to send a team of police and security experts to the region on the southern edge of Africa's Sahara desert to help governments there combat a growing threat from al Qaeda, Britain's foreign minister said on Monday.
The North African branch of al Qaeda, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), originated in Algeria but has expanded into Mali, Niger and Mauritania in recent years, worrying Western governments.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said resulting instability in the Sahel region could have a "profoundly destabilising effect on countries in North Africa and the Gulf" already rocked by the Arab Spring uprisings.
"Operating largely from northern Mali, this organisation (AQIM) presents an increased threat to our security," he told parliament, referring to last Friday's kidnapping of a group of visitors in the northern Mali town of Timbuktu.
Three of those seized by gunmen were from South Africa, the Netherlands and Sweden, their governments said, while a fourth person, believed to be German, was killed.
"We are stepping up our efforts to counter terrorism in the Sahel region and to support economic and political development," said Hague, who last month became the first British minister to visit Mauritania.
Britain is working with France and other European allies to develop an effective EU approach to security and development in the Sahel, he said.
Plans were at an early stage for a small EU mission in the Sahel region, focussing on policing, security, infrastructure development and regional training, he said.
Funding for the mission would come from the EU budget and it would place no extra burden on cash-strapped Britain except for "minimal costs associated with the deployment of any British personnel," he said.
Hague said that Britain was co-funding a military and police base on the Mali-Algerian border as well as emergency planning training in Mali and Niger.
"We are also working closely with Nigeria to combat the threat of terrorism," he said.
AQIM was known to have established contact with the Nigerian Islamist sect Boko Haram, "contributing to the growing strength and ambition of that group in recent months and extending their reach into northern Nigeria," Hague said.
Boko Haram has carried out two bombings in the Nigerian capital Abuja this year, the latest in August when a suicide bomber smashed a car full of explosives into the United Nations headquarters, killing 24 people.
Hague acknowledged that the revolution in Libya had had an impact on the Sahel's security situation, "risking an influx of weaponry from Libya as well as potential new recruits for AQIM in the form of former mercenaries," he said.
Hague said British nationals should pay attention to the Foreign Office's travel advice, which recommends against all travel to most of Niger, Mauritania and Mali, including Timbuktu.
Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Andrew Heavens