William Hague has promised that Britain will continue to support the international military action against Islamist militants in Mali as he became the first British Foreign Secretary ever to visit the North African state.
In meetings with president Dioncounda Traore and prime minister Django Cissoko, Mr Hague received an update on the Malian government's plans for fresh elections and a return to full democracy, and reaffirmed Britain's support for the process.
The Foreign Secretary also held a meeting with representatives of the Tuareg minority, whose long-standing independence struggle in the north of the country was hijacked by Islamist militants last year. He urged the authorities in the capital Bamako to pursue a course of "reconciliation" with legitimate groups in the north and ensure an "inclusive" political process open to all the country's ethnic groups.
The visit, just weeks after a French force routed Islamist rebels from strongholds in the north of Mali, came amid claims of the death of a key al Qaida leader in the country.
France's top military commander, Admiral Edouard Guillaud, said it was "probable" that forces from neighbouring Chad had killed Abou Zeid, the leader of al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), though he said no body had yet been recovered. Chad has also claimed to have killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the militant blamed for the gas plant siege in Algeria in January.
Mr Hague received an update on military progress from the Nigerian commander of the African-led Afisma intervention force and met members of the UK military team supporting the C17 transport plane which has facilitated the deployment of French and African forces to Mali.
Britain is contributing 40 military advisers to an EU training mission with the Malian armed forces, and has also offered up to 200 personnel to train troops from neighbouring African countries for a military stabilisation force in the country.
Speaking during his visit, the Foreign Secretary said: "I am pleased to be visiting Mali at this important time. The evolving threat from terrorist groups in Mali has necessitated an urgent international response to help the Malians restore their territorial integrity and deny terrorists a safe haven in their country. I welcome the progress made by French, Malian and African military forces in the north of Mali. The UK will continue to support this tough security response, including through the EU training mission.
"To ensure long-term stability, it is clear there needs to be a more inclusive political process in Mali as well as work to address longer-term development needs of Mali's people. In my meetings today, I welcomed the Malian government's agreement of the political roadmap towards elections and a transition to full democratic rule. I promised that the UK would work with partners in the region, the UN and the EU, to help Mali establish effective arrangements for the elections. I encouraged the Malian government to take forward the critical task of political reconciliation with legitimate groups in the north. Progress on reconciliation will be vital for lasting stability in Mali. The UK will also of course continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Mali and the region."
France last week said it was extending its mission in Mali until at least July as Islamic extremists there have put up a tougher fight than expected.