The United States has deployed a small number of troops to Mali, but insists they will only be used to provide support to the French-led operation there and will not engage in combat.
Lieutenant Colonel Robert Firman, a Pentagon spokesman, said around ten US military personnel are in Mali to provide ‘liaison support’ to French and African troops, reports the Washington Post.
“Today, there are about 10 US military personnel providing liaison support to French and AFISMA (the African-led International Support Mission to Mali) forces,” Africom spokesman Benjamin Benson said in a statement, adding that the number has fluctuated as personnel are rotated in and out of Mali.
“These [ten] are separate from the approximately 12 US military personnel assigned to the US Embassy. However, as we have stated before, no Americans are involved in combat operations,” Benson added.
Then secretary of defence Leon Panetta on January 15 said that there was “no consideration of putting any American boots on the ground at this time.”
Previously, the United States has only played a support role in the Mali conflict by providing transport aircraft and refuelling French warplanes. To date, the US has provided more than 7.8 million pounds of fuel to French aircraft and moved approximately 1 000 personnel and 1 500 tons of equipment.
The US has also deployed an unmanned aerial vehicle detachment to neighbouring Niger to monitor Mali and share intelligence with French forces. A number of unarmed Predator UAVs arrived in Niger’s capital Niamey in late February. The last of 100 US military personnel supporting the deployment arrived in Niger on February 20.
France, assisted by some 2 000 troops from Chad, began a military offensive in January to drive out Islamist fighters who had seized two-thirds of Mali a year earlier.
Hundreds of thousands of Malians have been displaced by fighting and the country’s north remains vulnerable to guerrilla-style counter attacks by radical Islamists.
Mali was once viewed as an example of a working democracy in Africa but its north has been plagued by rebellions and become a centre of cross-desert trafficking of drugs, stolen goods and Western hostages.
The UN Security Council unanimously approved last Thursday the creation of a 12 600-strong peacekeeping force in Mali starting July 1. It will be supported by France, which has approximately 4 000 troops in Mali.
The UN peacekeeping force – to be known as MINUSMA – will assume authority from a UN-backed African force deployed there to take over from the French. Most of the African force, known as AFISMA, is likely to become part of the peacekeeping operation, diplomats say.
The UN peacekeeping force in Mali will be the body’s third largest, behind deployments in Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur in Sudan, and cost up to $800 million annually, UN officials say.
France plans to withdraw most of its troops from Mali by the end of the year, with just 1 000 remaining by then.