LISBON The United States is sharing information with French forces battling al Qaeda-affiliated militants in Mali and is considering providing logistics, surveillance and airlift capability as well, U.S. defense officials said on Monday.
"We have made a commitment that al Qaeda is not going to find anyplace to hide," U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters on his plane as he began a week-long tour of European capitals.
Just as the United States pursued militants affiliated with al Qaeda to northern Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, "we have a responsibility to make sure that al Qaeda does not establish a base for operations in North Africa in Mali," he said.
France intervened in Mali on Friday in an effort to block an advance by rebels who the West fear could use the West African nation as a launching pad for international attacks.
Paris has poured hundreds of troops into the Malian capital and carried out more air raids on Monday in the vast desert area seized last year by al Qaeda's north African wing AQIM and Mali's home-grown MUJWA and Ansar Dine militant groups.
Panetta praised France for the steps it had taken and said he had been in talks with French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian about what assistance he needed. The Pentagon was looking at providing help in three areas, he added.
"One is obviously to provide limited logistical support, two is to provide intelligence support and three to provide some airlift capability," Panetta told the briefing on his plane.
A senior U.S. defense official said the United States was already sharing information with the French and would continue to do so.
Panetta declined to say whether the intelligence support would be in the form of satellite images or unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. He indicated the airlift support under discussion involved cargo planes and a defense official said the logistic support included tanker aircraft for aerial refueling.
"We are engaged in those discussions. Africom (U.S. Africa Command) is discussing this with France and will continue to work with them to ensure that ultimately we do stop AQIM," said Panetta, who received a briefing from the head of Africom, General Carter Ham, during his flight to Lisbon.
THREAT TO U.S., EUROPE
Panetta said the aim of the intervention was to disrupt rebel advances in Mali and to give time for the ECOWAS grouping of African nations to respond on the ground.
"The responsibility for assuring security in that region will be passed to African nations to provide a more permanent security for the sake of the world," he said.
"While they might not have any immediate plans for attacks in the United States and Europe ... ultimately that 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.
His comments came at the outset of a trip that is likely to be his last as U.S. defense secretary and will take him to Lisbon, Madrid, Rome and London.
Describing himself as a "son of Europe," the Italian-American defense secretary said it was appropriate to finish his time in office with a visit to NATO partners, adding that he wanted to underscore the importance of the alliance to a new generation of Europeans.
Panetta said he would brief his counterparts on talks last week between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. President Barack Obama.
Karzai and Obama discussed the nature of the U.S. military presence, if any, in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of most combat troops at the end of 2014.
They agreed that Afghan forces would take the lead role for security beginning this spring, in what was described as a slight acceleration of the mid-2013 transition timetable.
Panetta, the first U.S. defense secretary to visit Portugal in 30 years, said he would discuss plans to reduce the U.S. military presence at Lajes Air Field in the Azores.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Phil Stewart and Andrew Heavens)