— U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the United States is not considering sending ground troops to Mali to work with French forces that began an assault on militant Islamist rebels in the country last Friday. But during a visit to Portugal he said the U.S. military will help the French in other ways.
Panetta commended France for sending troops to try to prevent al-Qaida's North African affiliate from establishing a base of operations in Mali. But he indicated there is a limit to the help the United States will provide.
"There is no consideration of putting any American boots on the ground at this time," said Panetta.
On Monday, on his way to Portugal, Secretary Panetta said U.S. forces would help with intelligence, logistics and air transport. But officials say discussions are continuing with France on exactly what U.S. forces will do.
At his news conference in Lisbon Tuesday, Panetta said the French move against what is called al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is important for security beyond Africa. He said the group does not currently have the ability to attack the United States, but would like to develop it. And he indicated that establishing a base in Mali would be part of that plan.
"The fact is that the war on terrorism continues," said Panetta. "We have made good progress. We have undermined their ability to conduct the kind of attacks that they would like to conduct. But the war on terrorism continues."
Panetta is in Europe to consult with allies on a variety of subjects, but his trip does not include a stop in France, which is pounding rebel positions in Mali with air assaults and has sent in hundreds of ground troops. French officials were concerned that the militant Islamists, who control northern Mali, were on the verge of overrunning a key government-controlled town in the central part of its former colony, a move that could have exposed the capital to rebel attacks.
Several West African countries are also expected to send troops, with the first contingent, from Nigeria, expected by Wednesday.
A French soldier holds his weapon in the village of Sarakala, Mali, January 18, 2013.
Goats walk past a French military convoy refuelling in Markala, Mali, January 18, 2013.
People cross a strategic bridge over a dam on the Niger River secured by French forces in Markala, Mali, January 18, 2013.
A Malian soldier checks the identity of people crossing a strategic bridge over a dam on the Niger River secured by French forces in Markala, Mali, January 18, 2013.
French military vehicles drive to the north of Mali, at an undisclosed location, January 16, 2013. (French Army Communication Audiovisual Office)
French helicopters are towed to the military side of Bamako's airport, Mali, January 16, 2013.
A motorcyclist waves his support as French troops in two armored personnel carriers drive through Mali's capital Bamako on the road to Mopti, January 15, 2013.
French soldiers walk past a hangar they are staying at the Malian army air base in Bamako, January 14, 2013.
French soldiers test equipment at the Malian air base in Bamako, January 14, 2013.
French air force technicians work on a Mirage F-1 fighter jet at the Malian army air base in Bamako, January 14, 2013.
A French soldiers lies on his mattress in a hangar at the Malian army air base in Bamako, January 14, 2013.