U.S. has no plans to send troops to Mali: Panetta

MADRID Tue Jan 15, 2013 5:42pm EST

MADRID (Reuters) - The United States is still assessing what military aid to give France in its fight against al Qaeda-affiliated militants in Mali but has no plans to send U.S. troops, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Tuesday.

"We are discussing in Washington some of the requests that have been made to determine exactly what assistance we can provide," Panetta told a news conference in Madrid with Spanish Defense Minister Pedro Morenes.

Panetta, on a week-long trip to Europe that will likely be his last as defense secretary, told reporters on Monday the Pentagon was looking at providing France with logistics, intelligence and airlift capabilities.

"There is no consideration of putting any American boots on the ground at this time," he told a news conference earlier on Tuesday in Lisbon.

Panetta's comments came as France launched fresh air strikes on the fifth day of its military intervention in the African nation.

Paris has sent hundreds of soldiers to Mali and carried out air raids since Friday in the northern half of the country, which was seized last year by an Islamist alliance.

Panetta said Washington aimed to do whatever it could to ensure France is successful in disrupting the militants' advance toward the Malian capital until the ECOWAS grouping of African nations can deploy troops.

"As far as I'm concerned, the fundamental objective is to make sure that AQIM al Qaeda never establishes a base for operations in Mali or for that matter any place else," Panetta said, referring to the north African wing of the militant group.

Western and regional states fear the insurgents will use Mali's north, a vast and inhospitable area of desert and rugged mountains the size of Texas, as a base for international attacks.

Panetta has declined to say whether the U.S. intelligence support could include unmanned surveillance aircraft. A senior defense official has said the logistics support being studied included refueling planes.

The official said the United States already was sharing some information with French forces and would continue to do so.

Spain's Morenes said so far France had only asked for permission to fly over its maritime airspace, which Madrid had granted. He said Spain would consider further requests at a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels on Thursday.

"Spain supports the French operation because we think it is essential to avoid a worsening of the Mali situation," Morenes told the news conference. "Mali is essential to Spain because of its proximity to our country."

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

FILED UNDER: