Panetta: U.S. Support to French in Mali Aimed at al-Qaida

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta briefs the press in flight to Lisbon, Portugal, Jan. 14, 2013. Panetta is on a six-day trip to Europe to visit with defense counterparts and troops. DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo SECDEF Panetta

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta briefs the press in flight to Lisbon, Portugal, Jan. 14, 2013. Panetta is on a six-day trip to Europe to visit with defense counterparts and troops. DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

U.S. and French defense leaders are hammering out details of intelligence, logistics and airlift assistance the United States will provide to French forces in Mali, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said today.

Speaking to reporters on the flight to the Portuguese capital, the secretary said such planned assistance demonstrates U.S. leaders’ resolve that “we have a responsibility to go after al-Qaida wherever they are.”

“We've gone after them in the FATA,” Panetta said, referring to the federally administered tribal areas in Pakistan’s northwest. “We're going after them in Yemen and Somalia. And we have a responsibility to make sure that al-Qaida does not establish a base for operations in North Africa and Mali.”

French forces began airstrikes in Mali, a former French colony, four days ago. It has been widely reported France began its air campaign to halt the movement south of al-Qaida affiliated extremists, who have held Mali’s northern area since April.

Panetta said the United States and its allies have been “very concerned” about AQIM, or al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, “and their efforts to establish a very strong base in that area.”

The secretary said DOD officials have been working with regional partners to try to develop plans to confront that threat. “I commend France for taking the steps that it has,” he added. “And what we have promised them is that we will work with them to … provide whatever assistance we can to try to help them in that effort.”

Officials from the Stuttgart, Germany-based U.S. Africa Command also are discussing military support with France, the secretary said. A senior official traveling with the secretary told reporters that specific U.S. support to French forces in Mali has not yet been defined, but that Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, AFRICOM commander, spoke by phone earlier today from the African continent with the secretary, who was flying to Portugal at the time.

“We'll continue to work with [the French] to ensure that ultimately we do stop AQIM and that the responsibility for assuring security in that region will be passed to the African nations to provide a more permanent security for the sake of the world,” Panetta said.

While that longer-term solution develops, the secretary said, he will consult with allies on shorter-term support in France’s fight.

“One of the discussions I'll have in Spain regards their concern about what's happening with AQIM in Mali, as well,” he said. “And I'll get a better idea of what these other countries may be doing to assist.”

The secretary said while al-Qaida members in Mali do not appear to pose an immediate threat to the United States or its allies, “we're concerned any time al-Qaida establishes a base of operations that, while they might not have any immediate plans for attacks in the United States and in Europe, that ultimately … still remains their objective. And it's for that reason that we have to take steps now to ensure that AQIM does not get that kind of traction.”

President Barack Obama yesterday notified Congress, as required by the War Powers Act, that United States troops “provided limited technical support to the French forces” engaged in the attempted rescue of a French hostage in Somalia. French forces reported Denis Allex, who had been a hostage of al-Qaida-affiliated al Shabaab since 2009, was killed in the raid.

U.S. forces took no direct part in the assault on the compound where planners had concluded the French citizen was held hostage, the president wrote. U.S. combat aircraft briefly entered Somali airspace to support the rescue operation if needed, but did not employ weapons, he added.

All U.S. forces who supported the operation had left Somalia by about 8 p.m. EST Jan. 11, the president wrote.

“I directed U.S. forces to support this rescue operation in furtherance of U.S. national security interests,” the president wrote, “and pursuant to my constitutional authority to conduct U.S. foreign relations and as commander in chief and chief executive.”

Panetta landed here today for the first leg of a weeklong trip that will also take him to Madrid, Rome and London.

Visit http://www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=5175 to view the complete transcript.

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