U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, right, talks to Portugese Defense Minister Jose Pedro Aguiar-Branco before their meeting Jan. 15 at the Sao Juliao fort in Oeiras, near Lisbon. This is the first stop of a European trip that is expected to be Panetta's last overseas trip as secretary. (Francisco Seco / AP)
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LISBON, Portugal — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday that the U.S. has ruled out putting any American troops on the ground in Mali, but officials are hoping the French will be able to succeed in establishing better security for the West African nation.
Panetta spoke at a news conference in Lisbon with Portuguese Defense Minister Jose Aguiar Branco.
The U.S. is providing intelligence-gathering assistance to the French in their assault on Islamist extremists in Mali, and officials would not rule out having American aircraft land in the West African nation as part of future efforts to lend airlift and logistical support.
On Tuesday, Panetta said the U.S. is still working through the details of assistance it will provide France.
The comments came after French forces led an all-night bombing campaign over a small Malian town, working to dislodge Islamist extremists who had seized the area, including its strategic military camp.
Meanwhile, a convoy of 40 to 50 armed trucks carrying French troops crossed into Mali from Ivory Coast, where they were stationed, as France prepares for a possible land assault. The insurgents, however, have been gaining ground, pushing closer to Mali's capital, Bamako.
Panetta has called the military operation important, although "there is no consideration of putting any American boots on the ground at this time." He said that although al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, also known as AQIM, and other affiliate groups in Mali may not pose an immediate threat to the United States, "ultimately that remains their objective."
"We have to take steps now so that AQIM does not get that kind of traction," he said, and to ensure it does not secure a base of operations in the region.
He said al-Qaida affiliates in Yemen and Somalia have been weakened. But he said the job is not finished.
"I honestly believe that after four years, America is safer from that kind of attack that we experienced on 9/11," Panetta said. Still, he said, the United States has a responsibility to go after al-Qaida wherever it is, including Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
The Pentagon chief said U.S. officials have promised Portugal that America will do whatever it can to help and to insure that AQIM is ultimately stopped. He also noted that the Economic Community of West African States, which represents 15 nations, will be deploying forces in Mali soon.
French President Francois Hollande authorized the military assault as it became clear that the rebels could break Mali's military defenses in Mopti, the first town on the government-controlled side, located in the center of the country.
The French have suggested that the rebels are better armed than initially expected, having obtained caches of weapons stolen from the abandoned arsenal of Moammar Gadhafi, the former Libyan leader who was killed in the wake of the rebel uprising in his country. The Islamists also have gained control of weapons left by Mali's army when it abandoned the north as the rebels began advancing last spring.
Panetta met with Aguiar Branco at the minister's residence, an imposing medieval fort at the mouth of the Tagus River. The two men spoke about U.S. plans to reduce its presence at the Lajes military base in the Azores islands, cutbacks that would remove more than 400 military personnel and as many as 500 family members from the base in 2014. It is expected that the Air Force service members who remain would serve yearlong tours and would not be accompanied by their families.
Aguiar Branco said he spoke with Panetta about Portugal's concerns that pulling troops from the base would have a serious economic impact. Panetta said the U.S. is pledging to do all it can to mitigate the economic losses.
Panetta said the U.S. is committed to hiring three local workers for every American employed at the base. And he added that he is sending a group of business leaders to assess the situation and determine what other steps the U.S. can take to reduce the economic impact.
There are currently about 650 U.S. service members and Defense Department civilians at the Lajes base.