A Malian soldier holds an AK-47 in his lap at a military
checkpoint in Diabaly. REUTERS/Joe Penney
The United States has agreed to fly tankers to refuel
French jet fighters and bombers attacking al Qaeda-affiliated
militants who have established a foothold in northern Mali, US
defense officials say.
The decision, in response to an earlier French request,
expands US involvement, which so far has been limited to
sharing intelligence and providing airlift support to carry a
French mechanized infantry unit to Mali.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told his French counterpart,
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, about the US decision to
provide aerial refueling support during a phone call on
Saturday, Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a
France intervened militarily in Mali two weeks ago to halt
the advance of al Qaeda-affiliated militants who launched an
offensive that threatened the Malian capital, Bamako, in the
south of the country.
For two weeks, French jets and helicopter gunships have been
pursuing the retreating Islamists, attacking their vehicles,
command posts and weapons depots. The aim is to block the
advance of the rebels until forces from the ECOWAS grouping
of West African nations can deploy to take over the fight.
A US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity,
said three US KC-135 tankers would provide aerial refueling
as necessary to French aircraft, including tactical jets and
bombers. The US planes are stationed at Moron Air Base in
The defense official said the United States expected the
tankers to be involved in the operation for a period of
months as needed. They will be operating under the US Africa
Command, which coordinates US military involvement with
African countries but is based in Germany.
In his phone call with Le Drian, Panetta commended France for
leading the fight against Malian rebels affiliated with al
Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and noted that "recent
operational successes have helped turn back terrorist
advances," Little said in the statement.
Little said Panetta and Le Drian also discussed plans for the
United States to transport troops from African nations,
including Chad and Togo, to support the international effort
Panetta has said the United States has no plans to put combat
troops in Mali. Defense officials have said a small number of
US military personnel were temporarily at the airport in
Bamako to deal with the logistics of the airlift of hundreds
of French troops and tons of supplies.