WASHINGTON - The United States has agreed to fly tankers to refuel French jet fighters and bombers attacking al-Qaida-affiliated militants who have established a foothold in northern Mali, US defense officials said on Saturday.
The decision, in response to an earlier French request, expands US involvement, which so far has been limited to sharing intelligence and providing airlift support to carry a French mechanized infantry unit to Mali.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told his French counterpart, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, about the US decision to provide aerial refueling support during a phone call on Saturday, Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement.
France intervened militarily in Mali two weeks ago to halt the advance of al-Qaida-affiliated militants who launched an offensive that threatened the Malian capital, Bamako, in the south of the country.
For two weeks, French jets and helicopter gunships have been pursuing the retreating Islamists, attacking their vehicles, command posts and weapons depots. The aim is to block the advance of the rebels until forces from the ECOWAS grouping of West African nations can deploy to take over the fight.
A US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said three US KC-135 tankers would provide aerial refueling as necessary to French aircraft, including tactical jets and bombers. The US planes are stationed at Moron Air Base in Spain.