Jan. 27 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. will deepen its involvement in France’s fight against Islamist militants in Mali by conducting aerial refueling missions, Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pledged the increased support for France in a phone call with French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, Little said in a statement yesterday.
The U.S. has already been providing France with intelligence gathering and an airlift that has delivered hundreds of troops and hundreds of tons of supplies for the Mali operation, Little said.
Panetta’s decision came a day after President Barack Obama reiterated U.S. support for France’s effort to strengthen security in North Africa in a call with French President Francois Hollande.
Panetta also discussed plans by the U.S. to transport troops from African nations, including Chad and Togo, to Mali, Little said. He didn’t say when the additional assistance would begin or offer more details.
France intervened in Mali on Jan. 11 after Islamist fighters overran the town of Konna, sparking concern they might advance toward Bamako, the capital. The French Defense Ministry said that 2,500 soldiers have arrived in the landlocked West African country, which gained independence from France in 1960. African nations are deploying a force that may total as many as 3,300 troops.
Flow of Weapons
Since the ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi that unleashed a flow of weapons to militants in the region, the Obama administration has been torn between wanting to avoid entanglements in North Africa while warning of the dangers of advancing Islamist extremism. The U.S. has shown reluctance to provide weapons or U.S. troops to the fight in Mali, just as it has largely sidestepped the civil war in Syria.
U.S. officials say shifting alliances among at least four rebel groups in Mali have made it difficult to get a clear picture of the conflict there.
While the U.S. provided intelligence and some airlift in the initial weeks of the Mali operation, it had stopped short of offering refueling support. Panetta, on a trip to Europe this month, pointed to legal questions in explaining the need for caution.
“I find that every time I turn around, I face a group of lawyers,” Panetta told reporters on Jan. 16 in Rome. The administration’s legal counsel wanted “to be sure that they feel comfortable that we have the legal basis to do what we are being requested to do” in aiding the French, he said.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Jan. 15 that the U.S. couldn’t directly aid Mali’s current government, which was installed through a coup. She said there were no restrictions on helping allies such as France.
The legal restriction “is not implicated by the support we are providing to the French,” Little said. “We remain mindful of, and are carefully taking into account, the coup restriction as our plans for assistance develop.”
French and Malian forces pushed back Islamist rebels from Diabaly, 425 kilometers (264 miles) north of Bamako and three other towns this week.
At least 11,000 people have been forced from their homes by the recent fighting, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. About 230,000 have been displaced since the crisis began, the agency said Jan. 22.
“Secretary Panetta and Minister Le Drian resolved to remain in close contact as aggressive operations against terrorist networks in Mali are ongoing,” Little said.
In their call, Obama and Hollande also affirmed their broader interest in containing terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, blamed for a surge of violence in North Africa. The two leaders also discussed the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the need for a swift political transition there.
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