Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks to the traveling press aboard his plane en route to Lisbon, Portugal, on Jan. 14. (Jacquelyn Martin / The Associated Press)
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LISBON, Portugal — The U.S. is already providing intelligence-gathering assistance to the French in their assault on Islamist extremists in Mali, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, and officials would not rule out having American aircraft land in the West African nation as part of future efforts to lend airlift and logistical support.
Speaking to reporters traveling with him to Europe, Panetta said that while al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, also known as AQIM, and other affiliate groups in Mali may not pose an immediate threat to the United States, "ultimately that remains their objective."
For that reason, he said, "we have to take steps now so that AQIM does not get that kind of traction."
The United States has "a responsibility to go after al-Qaida wherever they are," including Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa, Panetta said. "We have a responsibility to make sure that al-Qaida does not establish a base of operations" in that region.
"The effort is to try to do what is necessary to halt their advances and to try to secure some of the key cities in Mali," said Panetta.
Panetta said the U.S. officials have promised Portugal that America will do whatever it can to help and to insure that AQIM is ultimately stopped. But he also noted that ECOWAS, the regional body representing the 15 nations in western Africa, will be deploying forces there soon.
He declined to go into detail about the U.S. aid, but he spoke with Gen. Carter Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, during the flight to get an update on the situation.
A senior U.S. official acknowledged that the intelligence support had started, but said talks were continuing to determine exactly what other aid will be provided. It was not clear how long it would be before those decisions are made. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue so requested anonymity.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said U.S. officials were consulting with their French counterparts on a number of requests for support.
"We share the French goal of denying terrorists safe haven," she told reporters in Washington.
International efforts would have to focus on strengthening Mali's military, which suffered another setback Monday, Nuland said. After cutting off a key road, al-Qaida-linked extremists moved closer to Mali's capital by overrunning the garrison town of Diabaly in the center of the country. They are now only 250 miles from the capital, Bamako, in the far south.
"Even as the Malian military works with France ... to try to root out these havens where the rebels have taken root, they're still going to have to be strong enough to hold that territory once they reclaim it," Nuland said.
Panetta's comments came as the French continued bombing raids across Mali's north in an effort to root out fighters who seized control of a large chunk of the region about nine months ago. The U.S. and roughly a dozen other countries are providing assistance, with the Pentagon assisting in transportation and intelligence gathering, including one drone.
French fighter jets bombed the airport, training camps, warehouses and other facilities used by the al-Qaida linked rebels, and at least 400 French troops have been deployed to the country as part of the broad-based, coordinated attacks.
French President Francois Hollande authorized the military assault as it became clear that the rebels could break Mali's military defenses in Mopti, the first town on the government-controlled side, located in the center of this African country.
The French have suggested that the rebels are better armed than initially expected, having obtained caches of weapons stolen from the abandoned arsenal of Moammar Gadhafi, the former Libyan leader who was killed in the wake of the rebel uprising in his country. The Islamists also have gained control of weapons left by Mali's army when it abandoned the north when the rebels began advancing last spring.
Panetta is embarking on what is expected to be his final overseas trip as defense chief, with stops in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Great Britain. He has plans to step down once the Senate has confirmed his successor. President Obama has nominated former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
Panetta was en route Monday to Portugal, where he is expected to talk to defense officials about the U.S. plans to reduce its presence at the Lajes military base in the Azores islands. The cutbacks would remove more than 400 military personnel and as many as 500 family members from the base in 2014. It is expected that the Air Force service members that remain would serve yearlong tours and would not be accompanied by their families.
Panetta said he wants to talk to officials in Portugal about expanding military relations with the U.S., including more military exercises.
Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.