By Carlo Muñoz - 01/22/13 09:51 PM EST
American C-17s have flown roughly 80 French troops and nearly 124 tons of supplies into northern Mali, where fighters allied with al Qaeda's West African cell — known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) — have teamed up with Malian separatists to take over that part of the country, DOD spokesman George Little told reporters at the Pentagon.
Aside from providing airlift capabilities to French military leaders, the United States has also been feeding intelligence to Paris on the movements of AQIM forces in the area, according to Little.
"We've provided information in support of the French since their operations began in Mali ... and we continue to consult with the French on further steps that we may take as U.S. government to support their efforts in Mali," he said on Tuesday.
French warplanes have been pounding al Qaeda targets inside northern Mali since last Sunday, with the help of American intelligence. French ground troops began advancing on key villages and towns in northern Mali this week.
So far, the Pentagon has only agreed to provide intelligence and military logistical support to Paris to aid their attempt to sweep AQIM fighters out of Mali. Pentagon officials are still debating whether to provide American aerial refuelers to French air forces, so those warplanes will be able to strike deeper into al Qaeda-held territory in Mali.
While Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has ruled out sending U.S. troops to Mali should the situation escalate, he and other top defense officials view AQIM and other al Qaeda cells operating on the continent as a direct threat to American national security, according to Little.
"We need to go after al Qaida wherever they are around the world," the DOD spokesman added.
While French troops have been able to push their way north, recent reports claim AQIM fighters have begun to strike back by attacking towns and cities in southern Mali.
Fighters in northern Mali have also been reportedly stockpiling weapons and supplies in areas in Mali still under AQIM control, preparing to dig in for a protracted fight against French forces.