WASHINGTON — The United States is significantly expanding its assistance to a French assault on Islamist militants in Mali by offering aerial refueling and planes to transport soldiers from other African nations, the Pentagon announced Saturday night.
The gesture comes amid a debate within the Obama Administration about how deeply it should engage in the French effort to prevent Islamists from wresting control of the West African nation.
French requests for more robust support from Washington raised a legal dilemma because U.S. law forbids foreign assistance funds to leaders who came to power through a coup. Mali’s military leaders, including some trained by U.S. troops, seized power last year by force.
A U.S. and France-backed African force will try to prevent northern Mali from becoming another haven for jihadists.
“The French requested this support, and we believe it was important to move ahead,” a defense official said on the condition of anonymity. “The U.S. has the most advanced refueling technology in the world, and we wanted to provide this support.”
The United States has concluded that the expanded assistance is legally sound because of France’s notification to the U.N. Security Council that its mission in Mali is being offered at the request of the African country’s government, which is fighting “terrorist elements,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. James Gregory said.
“Under these circumstances, the U.S. can lawfully provide support to France’s efforts in the armed conflict in Mali,” Colonel Gregory said. He said the coup bars “foreign-assistance funds,” not military support.
“We remain mindful of, and are carefully taking into account, the coup restrictions as our plans for assistance develop,” he added.
The Pentagon made the announcement after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spoke to his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, over the weekend.
Mr. Panetta commended France’s offensive and “noted recent operational successes that have helped turn back terrorist advances,” according to a statement the Pentagon issued summarizing the call.
The statement said that besides offering aerial refueling, which will enhance France’s ability to bomb suspected Islamist cells, Mr. Panetta offered to make U.S. military aircraft available to ferry allied soldiers from African nations including Chad and Togo to “support the international effort in Mali.”
France deployed troops to Mali on Jan. 11, fearing that rebel militants could be close to seizing control of the capital, Bamako.
The landlocked country, home to 14.5 million people, is a former French colony and remains an important trade partner for Paris.
In Mali on Sunday, French and Malian forces pushed toward the fabled desert town of Timbuktu as the two-week-long French mission gathered momentum.
So far, the French forces have met little resistance from the militants, though it remains unclear what battles may await them farther north. The Malian military blocked dozens of international journalists from trying to travel toward Timbuktu.
Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, a spokesman for Mali’s defense minister, declined to give details Sunday about the advance on Timbuktu, citing the security of a military operation.
Timbuktu’s mayor, Ousmane Halle, is in Bamako and he told the Associated Press he had no information about the remote town, where phone lines have been cut for days.
The move on Timbuktu comes a day after the French announced they had seized the airport and a key bridge in Gao, one of the other northern provincial capitals under the grip of radical Islamists.
“People were coming out into the streets to greet the arrival of the troops and celebrate,” said Hassane Maiga, a resident of Gao. “At night, youth from Gao went out alongside the Malian military. They scoured homes in search of the Islamists, and the youth smashed the houses.”
French and Malian forces were patrolling Gao on Sunday afternoon, searching for remnants of the Islamists and maintaining control of the bridge and airport, said Colonel Kone, the Mali military spokesman.