WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon is airlifting a French battalion to join the fight in Mali against Islamist militants, Pentagon and administration officials said Tuesday, but the United States has not yet agreed to a request from France to provide refueling tankers for its warplanes.
Air Force C-17 transport planes had completed five flights from bases in France into Bamako, the capital of Mali, by Tuesday, delivering 80 troops and more than 120 tons of their equipment, according to Pentagon press secretary George Little. It could take the U.S. two weeks to transport the entire 600-member French mechanized infantry unit and all of their gear, according to other Pentagon officials.
The airlift expands the involvement of the U.S. in support of a NATO ally, but officials stressed that the U.S. military footprint on the ground in Mali would remain small.
Pentagon officials declined to offer details beyond saying that security for the U.S. airlift would be provided by French forces and that a very small number of U.S. military communications personnel were on the ground to coordinate the flights.
A decision by the Obama administration on providing aerial tankers is expected within days, but the U.S. wants a clearer explanation of French plans for its mission, including whether more forces would be committed and how the French planned to end their leading role in the military campaign.
A French official, speaking on ground rules of anonymity to describe bilateral discussions, said some officials in Washington were concerned that assigning U.S. tanker planes to refuel French warplanes bombing Islamist militant targets in Mali might make the U.S. appear as a co-belligerent in the conflict. Even if that view was not supported under international law, it could be the perception across the Muslim world.
The French official explained that the request for U.S. refueling aircraft was submitted only as a prudent alternative.
"We do have air-refueling capacity," the French official said. "And we do have offers of support from other Europeans to do it. This request to the United States is the hypothetical case that our operations last longer than expected and we have to have a backup."
At the White House, Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the U.S. already was providing "significant intelligence support" to the French mission in Mali.
He said the U.S. and France agreed that long-term security required handing off the military operation to Mali's forces, perhaps assisted by African troops from the region.
"We are working with African troop contributors to quicken their deployment to Mali," Mr. Vietor said.
The French launched their offensive into Mali to push back gains by Islamist militants including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which started out as a group that was fighting the Algerian government. Pushed out of that country, it found a sanctuary in northern Mali, as did militants who left Libya after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi.