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Panetta: Cannot let al-Qaida hide in north Africa

Lolita C. Baldor Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senior U.S. defense leaders are working with allies on a plan to deal with al-Qaida- linked militants in Mali and elsewhere in the North Africa region, with American assistance likely to center on intelligence and logistical support and not troops on the ground.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday that the U.S. must work with nations in the region to ensure that al-Qaida has no place to hide and expand its capabilities.

Panetta provided no details on what the U.S. would be willing to do, and officials say no final decisions have been made. But senior Defense Department leaders have been in France for the recent meetings on the matter, including assistant defense secretary Michael Sheehan and deputy assistant secretary Amanda Dory. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson was also at the Paris talks, which began on Monday.

A senior U.S. diplomat said there is very little appetite in the U.S. to intervene in Mali without the express agreement of the Malian government and as part of a strategy laid out by ECOWAS, the alliance of West Africa nations.

Officials are discussing plans for an African-led military offensive against al-Qaida-linked militants in northern Mali. U.S. Gen. Carter Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, has said the U.S. would not put boots on the ground there, but would be able to provide other assistance, including intelligence gathering and other support.

There are only about a dozen members of a U.S. military team in Mali as part of the normal embassy staff and security.

Officials have linked al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb to the attack at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. AQIM’s leaders are known to be largely in northern Mali, operating out of safe havens there.

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Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Wendy Benjaminson contributed to this report.

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