A small group of U.S. airmen is on the ground in Mali to guide and unload an increasing flow of U.S. military aircraft ferrying French troops and supplies to the fight against Al Qaeda-backed rebels, Pentagon officials said Tuesday.
Five C-17 Globemasters flying out of a French military have already arrived and departed from Bamako, Mali after dropping off an undetermined number of troops and about 120 tons of equipment, the Pentagon officials said.
"Less than 10" U.S. Air Force personnel were sent to Bamako last week to handle the flights that began arriving over the weekend, a Pentagon official said. George Little, the Pentagon's chief spokesman, stressed that the small Air Force contingent was not a precursor to U.S. combat involvement.
"Boots on the ground is a different question," Little said in repeating the assertions of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that the U.S. supported France in the drive against the rebels but would not send combat troops.
Little said the airmen were limited to the relatively safe environs of the Bamako airport.
"We are confident that security can be maintained at this airfield," Little said.
The French military has little airlift capacity and France has been hard-pressed to maintain air support for the 2,500 French troops now on the ground in Mali.
Britain and Canada began aiding the French with their own C-17 flights earlier this month but the U.S. C-17 flights started only after what reportedly was the heated rejection by French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian of U.S. requests that France reimburse the U.S. for the help.
Little said that the U.S. for now would not ask for payment.
"We've made the decision at this time not to seek compensation or re-imbursement," Little said, adding that there were no initial estimates on the costs of the airlift.
The French also need U.S. help for aerial refueling of their Rafale and Mirage attack aircraft that have been making long-haul flights from France and bases in Chad to bomb rebel positions. Little said no decisions have been made on whether to commit aerial tankers from the U.S. European Command to the effort.
Little would not confirm whether U.S. drones were also aiding the French with reconnaissance missions over Mali.
"We are sharing intelligence with the French," Little said, but he would not provide specifics.
French troops began arriving in Mali on Jan. 11 to combat rebel forces backed by the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb faction that have gained control of territory about the size of Texas in northern Mali. The French also intervened to protect the estimated 6,000 French citizens in and around Bamako.
French Malian troops over the weekend took back two central towns that had been occupied by the rebels and Le Drian called the action "a clear military success for the government in Bamako and for French forces intervening in support of these operations."