U.S. tanker planes have begun flying missions to refuel French attack aircraft supporting French ground troops advancing into northern Mali in the push to oust al-Qaeda-backed rebel forces, Pentagon officials said Monday.
The U.S. is also considering setting up a small base in northwest Africa, possibly in Niger to the east of Mali, from which to fly unarmed drone reconnaissance flights for the French, the New York Times reported.
The U.S. has designated three of the KC-135 Stratotankers based in Moron, Spain for the refueling missions. One of them delivered 33,000 pounds of fuel on Sunday night to French Rafale and Mirage aircraft over northern Africa, a Pentagon official said.
Last week, the U.S. began ferrying troops and supplies to the French aboard C-17 Globemasters flying out of the French airbase at Istres in southeast France after agreeing to the French demand not to seek reimbursement for the flights, French and U.S. officials said.
According to the Pentagon, a small contingent of U.S. Air Force personnel was sent to the airport in the Malian capital of Bamako to assist with air traffic control and the unloading of the C-17 flights.
The U.S. initially had balked at refueling missions but agreed to assign the KC-135s, also without reimbursement, after phone discussions last Friday between President Obama and French President Francois Hollande, and on Saturday between Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian.
In their phone conversation, Panetta and Le Drian agreed that the U.S. would supply aircraft to ferry African troops from neighboring Togo and Chad to Mali to join in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) peacekeeping force that is building in Mali to support the advance by French and Malian troops.
Panetta and Le Drian “resolved to remain in close contact as aggressive operations against terrorist networks in Mali are ongoing,” according to a Defense Department statement on the conversation.
Panetta has ruled out sending U.S. ground forces to back the French. Britain and Canada have also ruled out ground forces, but both nations have been aiding the French with their own C-17s.
In their drive northward, French forces entered the fabled desert city of Timbuktu on Monday and met no resistance from the rebels, who appeared to have abandoned the city.
Residents charged that the rebels set fire to the main library housing priceless Islamic manuscripts.
“It’s truly alarming that this has happened,” Mayor Ousmane Halle told The Associated Press. “They torched all the important ancient manuscripts. The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people.”