U.S. expands limited support for French mission in Mali

WASHINGTON Thu Jan 17, 2013 6:36pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has agreed to a French request for airlift capacity to help France move its troops and equipment to Mali, a limited expansion of American support in the battle against Islamist rebels there, U.S. officials said on Thursday.

The U.S. decision, while widely expected, comes after an Obama administration legal review to decide what assistance Washington could provide to France, which last week began a military operation against the militants in Mali.

One U.S. official said the Air Force could start cargo flights, likely using C-17 aircraft but possibly also larger C-5s, in as little as a day. But details have yet to be worked out and no timetable has been decided.

"We've agreed to transport the troops and material," said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council. He said the French would reimburse the U.S. government for the costs of the military flights.

The airlift support comes on top of increased U.S. intelligence-sharing with France, but keeps the United States distant from fighting on the ground.

Other possible steps, like providing aerial refueling for French jets or sending in surveillance drones, have yet to be taken and, depending on decisions in Washington, may not be.

The top U.S. military officer, General Martin Dempsey, said France had not requested U.S. assistance in any lethal operations.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said there are no plans to send in U.S. troops and, in an interview with ABC News, said the real effort would ultimately fall to regional powers.

"Ultimately the African nations, particularly the West African nations, ECOWAS, have to ultimately go in and resume responsibility for providing security in Mali," Panetta said.

(Writing by Warren Strobel; reporting by David Alexander, Phil Stewart and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Eric Beech and Stacey Joyce)

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