By David Alexander
ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT, Jan 14 (Reuters) - The United States is sharing information with French forces battling al Qaeda-affiliated militants in Mali and is also considering providing logistics, surveillance and airlift capability, U.S. defense officials said on Monday.
"We have a responsibility to go after al Qaeda wherever they are," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters heading with him on a week-long tour of European capitals.
"We have a responsibility to make sure that al Qaeda does not establish a base for operations in North Africa in Mali."
Panetta said the United States had been "very concerned" about attempts by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to establish a base in northern Mali, and commended France for the steps it has taken to disrupt advances by the militants.
"We have been working with our regional partners to try to develop plans to confront that threat," he said, adding that the Pentagon was looking at providing assistance in three areas.
"One is to obviously provide limited logistical support, two is to provide intelligence support and three to provide some airlift capability," Panetta said. He did not give a time frame for making the decision about the additional support.
France has poured hundreds of troops into the Malian capital Bamako in recent days and carried out more air raids on Monday in the vast desert area seized last year by an Islamist alliance grouping AQIM with Mali's home-grown MUJWA and Ansar Dine militant groups.
A senior U.S. defense official said the United States was already sharing information with the French and would continue to do so.
The U.S. defense secretary declined to say whether the intelligence support would be in the form of satellite images or unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. He indicated that the airlift support under discussion involved cargo planes, and a defense official said the logistics support included refueling aircraft.
"We are engaged in those discussions. Africom (U.S. Africa Command) is discussing this with France and will continue to work with them to ensure that ultimately we do stop AQIM," said Panetta, who received a briefing from the commander of the U.S. Africa Command, General Carter Ham, during the flight.
Panetta said the aim was to disrupt the rebel advances in Mali to give time for the ECOWAS grouping of African nations to respond on the ground.
"The responsibility for assuring security in that region will be passed to African nations to provide a more permanent security for the sake of the world," he said.
Panetta said that while AQIM might not be an immediate threat to the United States, the fear was that it ultimately would be.
"We're concerned that any time al Qaeda establishes a base of operations," he said.
"While they might not have any immediate plans for attacks in the United States and in Europe ... ultimately that still remains their objective and it's for that reason that we have to take steps now to ensure that AQIM does not get that kind of traction."