A French Rafale jetfighter lands Jan. 13 after a mission to Mali in N'Djamena, Chad. (Adj Nicolas-Nelson Richar / ECPAD via AP)
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WASHINGTON — U.S. military warplanes assisted French forces battling Islamic extremists in two African countries over the weekend, according to the Pentagon, highlighting the growing threat of al-Qaida-linked terrorists in the region.
The Pentagon and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta would not offer details on the nature of support to French troops in Mali or Somalia. But the U.S. military has the ability, unparalleled in the world, to provide aerial refueling and spy planes. It provided those assets during most of the campaign to support rebel forces and the NATO mission in Libya.
In Mali, where extremists threatened to overrun the capital of Bamako, French jets pounded rebel positions in the northern desert region. The U.S. military has been training Mali's armed forces to deal with the insurgency there, but some of those troops defected, and others were ineffective.
"We stand by our French allies and they can count on U.S. support," Lt. Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement. "I won't get into the specific nature of our support. As Secretary Panetta has said, we share France's concern in Mali and we will support the French and international community in the effort to counter the terrorist threat there."
The decision by the French to send troops and bomb rebel positions indicates there might be a push to deliver a crushing blow to the rebels instead of holding them off until Mali's military can retake the initiative, said Stephanie Pezard, a political scientist at the RAND Corp. and an expert on the region.
"The risk in waiting is that the Islamists could recoup their losses," she said.
The U.S. military, she said, is likely to remain in a support role there.
In Somalia, French forces raided a rebel stronghold hoping to free an intelligence agent held captive there since 2009. U.S. warplanes entered Somali airspace for a limited time, Warren said. They did not fire any weapons.
"U.S. forces provided limited technical support to the French forces in that operation, but took no direct part in the assault on the compound where it was believed the French citizen was being held hostage," Warren said. "Additionally, U.S. combat aircraft briefly entered Somali airspace to support the rescue operation, if needed. These aircraft did not employ weapons during the operation.
"The U.S. forces that supported this operation left Somalia on January 11 at approximately 8:00 p.m. EST."
The military conducts operations off the coast of Somalia, and occasional raids inside its borders. The Navy has intercepted pirate vessels at sea, and last year special operations forces rescued a U.S. woman held hostage in Somalia.