WASHINGTON – The U.S. Air Force is supporting the French intervention in Mali through an ongoing airlift mission, and may begin providing aerial refueling to French aircraft fighting Islamist militants in the country, the Pentagon says.

As of Tuesday, five sorties by U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo jets had flown more than 80 French troops and more than 120 tons of equipment into Bamako, the Malian capital, Pentagon press secretary George Little said.

French troops are providing security at the airfield, U.S. military officials said, and U.S. boots on the ground in the country have so far been limited to the temporary presence of aircrew members and a short assignment by several communications specialists.

As earlier reported, the United States has been providing intelligence to France, but Little would not say whether that included surveillance gathered by drone aircraft. Little also would not comment when asked whether U.S. special operations forces were operating in Mali.

France has also asked for aerial refueling from U.S. tanker aircraft, but the request is still being weighed, Little said.

“It’s been just over 10 days since the French began their operations, and we have moved quickly to provide intelligence support, and we are providing airlift as well,” he told reporters at the Pentagon. “And we’re going to continue to work with the French to determine what their future needs might be.”

Some 2,000 French troops are in Mali, fighting in concert with government troops to beat back an offensive launched earlier this month by Islamist militants. Lawless northern Mali has been described as a virtual country carved out and controlled by al-Qaida.

Speaking last week at a press conference in Madrid, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the United States was fully in support of the French mission.

“With regards to the objective in Mali, as far as I’m concerned, the fundamental objective is to make sure that AQIM, al-Qaeda, never establishes a base for operations in Mali, or for that matter, anyplace else,” he said. Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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