WASHINGTON – The U.S. military could be drawn into the intensifying fight in the African country of Mali, the latest overseas hotbed of rising terrorist activity.

According to Associated Press reports, al-Qaida-linked extremists this weekend took control of the village of Diabaly and scattered Malian military troops in the center of the country. French officials responded with intensive aerial bombardments, but failed to slow the Islamist extremists’ march toward the capital of Bamako.

French President Francois Hollande deployed 550 French troops to Mali and authorized the airstrikes, which began Friday. Britain over the weekend authorized sending several C-17 transport planes to help France bring more troops.

In a statement Monday, Defense Department officials said that France “can count on U.S. support.”

Air Force Maj. Robert Firman, a spokesman for the department, added that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has reiterated his concern over the situation in Mali and promised that “we will support the French and international community in the effort to counter the terrorist threat there.”

Panetta, traveling in Europe this week, told reporters that the military is also providing intelligence-gathering assistance to French forces.

MSNBC reported Monday that the White House is planning to announce increased U.S. military support for the French fighters later this week. But officials from the National Security Council said discussions so far have focused only expanding the existing support efforts.

France has requested assistance from countries neighboring Mali to help push back the terrorist fighters. But officials from NATO said that they have not received a formal request for intervention.

The NATO alliance “is not involved in this crisis,” said NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu. “But of course the situation in Mali is of grave concern to all of us because it threatens the security and the stability of the country, the region and beyond.”

The Associated Press also reported over the weekend that French radio broadcast a taunting telephone interview with Omar Ould Hamaha, a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, which controls part of northern Mali, promising more retribution against France.

“France has opened the gates of hell,” he said. “It has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia.”

The extremist groups have been a problem for Mali for much of the last year, following a coup in the capital.

News reports say that the Islamists have imposed an austere form of Islam on the regions they’ve commandeered. They have cut off the hands and feet of thieves in public spectacles that have left outdoor squares awash in blood. Women live with increasingly less freedom and are required to fully cover themselves. They have been flogged and whipped for offenses such as wearing makeup or not covering their hands.

Last month, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution calling for a military intervention, but with the Malian military in the lead. Last week, the associated press reported, French officials decided for immediate military intervention after spotting a pair of rebel convoys advancing south towards Bamako.

Also over the weekend, the French government has ordered the evacuation of all French nationals living in Segou, located just 150 miles from the Malian capital.

Reporter Matt Millham contributed to this story.

shanel@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @LeoShane

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