US in constant contact with France on Mali operation
The US military is in constant contact with France on its operations in Mali, a Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday, adding that the assistance the US is providing is well defined, DPA reported.
"The US applauds the French for their leadership in Mali," said the spokesman, George Little. "AQIM (al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb) and other terrorist groups have threatened to establish a safe haven in Mali, and the French have done absolutely the right thing."
Little said the US has been supporting the French in a variety of ways, including intelligence sharing, refueling and airlifts. He said there is currently no plan for the US to join French troops in combat.
French and African forces have been battling Islamist rebels in Mali since early January. French-backed government forces have made gains particularly in Timbuktu and Gao where they have chased the rebels out.
Little said the US began sharing intelligence with the French on January 11. Since early last week the US has airlifted supplies and French troops, making 17 flights into Bamako. This week the US Air Force began refueling support to French air operations using three of its in-flight refueling tankers based in Spain.
Little declined to confirm reports that the US is considering establishing a drone base in north-west Africa - near Mali - to bolster its surveillance of al-Qaeda linked militants and other Islamist extremists.
However, he noted that outgoing Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has said that the US would go after al-Qaeda wherever they are.
"We are taking the fight in various ways to al-Qaeda," Little said. "AQIM poses a threat in the region, and I can't rule out the possibility that AQIM poses a threat to US interests."
AQIM was blamed for the four-day hostage crisis two weeks ago at In Amenas gas complex in Algeria, where at least 37 foreigners and one Algerian worker were killed.
Outgoing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also has expressed concern about the current situation in northern Africa, saying Mali in particular presented "a very serious ongoing threat."
Little also said the US was grateful that Niger has entered into status-of-forces agreement with the United States, calling it a "very important agreement." The agreement was signed Monday. Little said the US was looking to define what kind of future military presence it may have in Niger.