By David S. Cloud
2:20 PM CST, January 18, 2013
WASHINGTON -- After a weeklong delay while the Obama administration debated whether to assist French forces fighting in Mali, the Pentagon is planning to begin ferrying additional French troops and equipment to the West African nation in coming days aboard U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo jets, according to Air Force Maj. Robert Firman.
But the Obama administration has so far balked at a French request to provide tanker aircraft for in-air refueling of French fighters, because the administration does not want to get directly involved in supporting combat operations.
Firman said Pentagon planners are still considering whether runways at the airport in Mali’s capital, Bamako, can handle the C-17s or whether the planes will land outside Mali and the troops will be flown on smaller aircraft into Mali.
French officials have asked the U.S. to transport an armored infantry battalion of between 500 and 600 soldiers, their vehicles and other equipment. The C-17s being used in the operation are based in the U.S, Firman said.
France jumped into the fray last week after militants overtook the strategic city of Konna, raising fears that the extremists controlling the north could extend their reach southward toward Bamako. Troops from several West African nations also started arriving this week.
Mali was unsettled last year by a military coup and a rebellion by the marginalized Tuareg, who were later outflanked by religious extremists with ties to Al Qaeda. The Islamist gains alarmed France, which fears the northern stretches of the country could become a base from which to launch terrorist attacks on Europe. Until the recent capture of Konna, however, the U.S. did not see the situation as an urgent threat.
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Emily Alpert in Los Angeles contributed to this report.