Children watch a convoy of French soldiers drive north through Segou, Mali, on Jan. 22. (Jerome Delay / The Associated Press)
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The U.S. military is conducting ongoing flight operations in the African country of Mali in support of the French-led mission targeting militants linked to the group al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, also known as AQIM.
At least five C-17 Globemaster aircraft have flown into an airfield in Bamako, the capital of Mali, carrying 80 French troops and about 124 tons of supplies, Pentagon spokesman George Little said Tuesday.
A small contingent of U.S. troops may be at the airfield in support of the flight operations, but ground-based support will remain limited, officials said.
"There are no plans at this time to conduct traditional boots-on-the-ground operations in support of the French mission," Little told reporters at the Pentagon.
U.S. officials may expand the operation to include aerial refueling support to French aircraft with U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotankers, Little said. "We will work in consultation with the French to determine what their capacity is," Little said.
Small groups of U.S. special operations forces have deployed to Mali in recent years, but Little declined to say whether any of those troops remain on the ground there now.
At least three American civilians were killed Saturday at a natural gas facility in Algeria that was seized by Islamic militants. The facility was near the Algerian border with Mali and a rural desert region controlled by militants.
France began a bombing campaign in Mali, a former French colony, on January 14 after Islamic militants seized the town of Diabaly, in a rural desert about 250 miles north of the capital.
French infantry troops and tanks are operating on the ground in Diabaly to protect it from the militants. Their ally, AQIM, operates in northern Africa and reportedly has links to the al-Qaida faction in Pakistan.
The Islamic militants have controlled Mali's northern desert region for months. Their recent attack on Diabaly signaled that the group was moving south toward the capital and prompted French intervention.