US vows aid for Mali battle but 'no boots on ground'
The United States stands ready to support France's military assault on Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels in Mali -- but without putting any US troops on the ground, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday.
The United States is determined to prevent the north African armed jihadist group Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) setting up a base in Mali, Panetta said after talks with Portuguese Defence Minister Jose Aguiar-Branco in Lisbon at the start of a European tour.
"We have always been concerned about efforts by Al Qaeda to establish that kind of base. Our commitment ever since 9-11 has been to go after Al-Qaeda wherever they are and to make sure that they have no place to hide," Panetta said.
"Our hope is that we can work with the French to provide whatever assistance we can to try to assist them in that effort," he added. "The hope is that, ultimately, they will be able to succeed and establish better security for Mali."
But Panetta, who said Monday the United States could offer intelligence and logistical support, stressed that there was no question of putting US ground forces into battle in Mali. "There is no consideration of putting any American boots on the ground at this time," he said.
France launched a campaign of air bombardments Friday to halt an advance on the Malian capital Bamako by Islamist fighters. A contingent of 750 French troops has been sent to bolster Malian forces against the rebels, who have controlled northern Mali since April.
"Al-Qaeda still remains a threat and they have relocated in other parts of the world," Panetta said, claiming success in weakening the network in Yemen and Somalia.
"The job is not finished. We have to continue the effort to go after Al-Qaeda where it decides to relocate," Panetta said.
"The fact is that the war on terrorism continues. We have made good progress. We have undermined their ability to conduct the kind of attack that they would like to conduct, but the war on terrorism continues."
Panetta was travelling to Spain and then Italy later in the day before heading to Britain on his final foreign tour as Pentagon chief.