US agrees to refuel French warplanes on Mali mission

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The Pentagon has agreed to refuel French warplanes that are currently conducting operations against Islamist militants in Mali, the US military said in a statement.

President Barack Obama's administration had previously been asked by France for refueling assistance and outgoing US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has now approved the request, Pentagon spokesman George Little said on Saturday.

Obama held telephone talks with French President Francois Hollande on Friday in which the two leaders discussed global security concerns and vowed to work together to tackle extremism across North Africa.

France deployed troops to Mali two weeks ago who have been working with government forces to try to flush out radical Islamist fighters including Al-Qaeda linked rebels who had seized control of several northern towns.

Following on from Obama and Hollande's discussion, Panetta spoke to French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian to discuss US military support "to deny terrorists a safe haven in Mali".

"Secretary Panetta informed Minister Le Drian that US Africa Command will support the French military by conducting aerial refueling missions as operations in Mali continue," Little said.

They also discussed plans for the United States to transport troops from African nations, including Chad and Togo, to support the international effort in Mali, he added.

French-led troops on Saturday recaptured the Islamist stronghold of Gao in what was seen as a major boost to the 16-day-old offensive against the rebels who are holding Mali's vast desert north.

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