WASHINGTON, Jan 26 (Reuters) - The United States has agreed to fly tankers to refuel French jet fighters and bombers attacking al Qaeda-affiliated militants who have established a foothold in northern Mali, U.S. defense officials said on Saturday.
The decision, in response to an earlier French request, expands U.S. involvement, which so far has been limited to sharing intelligence and providing airlift support to carry a French mechanized infantry unit to Mali.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told his French counterpart, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, about the U.S. decision to provide aerial refueling support during a phone call on Saturday, Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement.
France intervened militarily in Mali two weeks ago to halt the advance of al Qaeda-affiliated militants who launched an offensive that threatened the Malian capital, Bamako, in the south of the country.
For two weeks, French jets and helicopter gunships have been pursuing the retreating Islamists, attacking their vehicles, command posts and weapons depots. The aim is to block the advance of the rebels until forces from the ECOWAS grouping of West African nations can deploy to take over the fight.
A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said three U.S. KC-135 tankers would provide aerial refueling as necessary to French aircraft, including tactical jets and bombers. The U.S. planes are stationed at Moron Air Base in Spain.
The defense official said the United States expected the tankers to be involved in the operation for a period of months as needed. They will be operating under the U.S. Africa Command, which coordinates U.S. military involvement with African countries but is based in Germany.
In his phone call with Le Drian, Panetta commended France for leading the fight against Malian rebels affiliated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and noted that "recent operational successes have helped turn back terrorist advances," Little said in the statement.
Little said Panetta and Le Drian also discussed plans for the United States to transport troops from African nations, including Chad and Togo, to support the international effort in Mali.
Panetta has said the United States has no plans to put combat troops in Mali. Defense officials have said a small number of U.S. military personnel were temporarily at the airport in Bamako to deal with the logistics of the airlift of hundreds of French troops and tons of supplies.
(Reporting By David Alexander and Phil Stewart; editing by Philip Barbara)