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Greater US military role in Mali likely after polls: senator

US Sen. Chris Coons arrives for a press conference on Capitol Hill on November 18, 2010, in Washington
US Sen. Chris Coons arrives for a press conference on Capitol Hill on November 18, 2010, in Washington. The United States is likely to play a more active military role in Mali, where French-led forces are battling Islamist rebels, after the country holds

The United States is likely to play a more active military role in Mali, where French-led forces are battling Islamist rebels, after the country holds elections, the chair of a key Senate sub-committee said Monday.

Washington has been providing intelligence, transport and mid-air refuelling to France, which launched its intervention last month, but cannot work directly with the Malian army until a democratically elected government replaces current leaders who came to power after a coup, said Christopher Coons, chair of the Senate foreign relations committee's Africa sub-committee.

"There is the hope that there will be additional support from the United States in these and other areas, but ... American law prohibits direct assistance to the Malian military following the coup," Coons told journalists in the Malian capital.

"After there is a full restoration of democracy, I would think it is likely that we will renew our direct support for the Malian military," added the senator, who led a bipartisan congressional delegation to Mali to meet with interim president Dioncounda Traore and French and African defence officials.

US military aid to Mali before the March 2012 coup consisted largely of training and equipment such as vehicles, a State Department official said.

But military assistance "would obviously be resumed in a way commensurate with the current needs. Priorities would have shifted a bit," the official added.

"There could be other kinds of assistance that had there not been a coup we could have provided, or requests for things now that we can't provide."

Some US lawmakers criticised President Barack Obama's administration last week for not doing more to help France in Mali.

"This is a NATO ally fighting Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists -- it shouldn't be that hard," said House foreign affairs committee chairman Ed Royce.

The hint of greater US involvement after elections adds to the complicated calculus of picking a date for the polls.

Traore, the interim president, has said he wants elections by July 31.

But critics say that is too soon given the problems Mali still faces, including ongoing insurgent attacks, a deeply divided military and hundreds of thousands of people who have fled their homes.

The minister responsible for organising the elections, Territorial Administration Minister Moussa Sinko Coulibaly, said last week the timeline "can be changed if necessary".

France, which launched its intervention on January 11 as Al-Qaeda-linked groups that had occupied the north for 10 months made incursions into government territory, is keen to share the military burden in Mali, and has announced plans to start bringing its 4,000 troops home in March.

The European Union formally approved a military training mission Monday that will be tasked with getting Mali's under-funded army ready to secure reclaimed territory.

But France is the only Western country with combat troops on the ground, and would like to hand over to some 6,000 west African troops who are slowly being deployed to help.

Mali imploded after a coup by soldiers who blamed the government for the army's humiliation at the hands of separatist rebels in the north.

With the capital in disarray, Al-Qaeda-linked fighters hijacked the independence rebellion and took control of a territory larger than Texas.

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