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Panetta: U.S. could provide logistical, intel support in Mali

By Chris Lawrence, CNN
January 15, 2013 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Panetta: "We have a responsibility to go after al Qaeda wherever they are"
  • The U.S. military could provide logistical and intelligence support for the French, Panetta says
  • State Department's Nuland says the U.S. would not support the Malian military directly
  • Nuland: "We are not in a position to train the Malian military until we have democracy restored"

(CNN) -- The U.S. military could provide logistical and intelligence support in the French effort against Islamist rebels in Mali, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday.

Conflict explained: What's behind the instability in Mali?

The U.S. will "provide whatever assistance it can" as part of what Panetta said was the U.S. global efforts against al Qaeda.

"We have a responsibility to go after al Qaeda wherever they are. And we've gone after them in the FATA (Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas). We're going after them in Yemen and Somalia. And we have a responsibility to make sure that al Qaeda does not establish a base for operations in North Africa and Mali," Panetta told reporters traveling with him to Europe.

The State Department said Monday the United States is in consultation with the French now on a number of requests that they have made for support.

French defense minister: Islamist rebels gaining ground in Mali

Malian soldiers transport in a pickup truck a dozen suspected Islamist rebels on Friday, February 8, after arresting them north of Gao. A suicide bomber blew himself up on February 8 near a group of Malian soldiers in the northern city, where Islamist rebels driven from the town have resorted to guerilla attacks. Malian soldiers transport in a pickup truck a dozen suspected Islamist rebels on Friday, February 8, after arresting them north of Gao. A suicide bomber blew himself up on February 8 near a group of Malian soldiers in the northern city, where Islamist rebels driven from the town have resorted to guerilla attacks.
Photos: Mali military battles Islamist insurgents
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Photos: Fighting Islamists in Mali Photos: Fighting Islamists in Mali
U.S. helps France fight African Islamists
U.S. and the war in Mali
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"We are reviewing the requests that they have made," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday.

The U.S., she said, is "not in the position to support the Malian military directly until we have democratic processes restored by way of an election in Mali. We are not in a position to train the Malian military until we have democracy restored."

Read more: Is this al Qaeda's 'last chance' for a country?

Panetta described the assistance as both logistical and intelligence. The United States already has started sharing intelligence from satellites and intercepted signals with the French, defense officials said Monday. In addition, the Pentagon is considering sending refueling tankers so that French jets can fly longer, more sustained combat mission, according to the officials.

Drones "are under consideration," according to defense officials, though the military's stash of unmanned aerial vehicles are in heavy demand.

"That's one of the things we're working through now, is how many and from where we'd be able to provide those assets," said one of the officials, noting that drones are being used in other conflict areas such as Afghanistan and Yemen.

Although both caveat that these would be surveillance drones and said there are no plans yet to deploy armed unmanned aerial vehicles.

Read more: France determined to 'eradicate' terrorism in Mali

The officials also say another intelligence-gathering assets under consideration are piloted planes.

"There's no real air defenses to speak of in Mali, outside of AQIM firing guns in the air. So anything we send does not have to be our most secretive, less detectable equipment," one of the officials aid.

The US also considering giving "airlift capacity" to the effort, similar to what the British have provided in two cargo planes, according to the officials. This "would help the French with moving equipment, vehicles and people" to where they're needed in Mali, the officials said.

Panetta said al Qaeda's Mali affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, is not an immediate threat to the U.S. homeland but does pose a risk if it gains a foothold. U.S. officials have said the group was tied to the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.

"While they might not have any immediate plans for attacks in the United States and in Europe, that ultimately still remains their objective and it's for that reason that we have to take steps now to ensure that AQIM does not get that kind of traction," Panetta said, according to a transcript of Panetta's remarks to reporters.

CNN's Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.

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