The US military plans to set up a base for drones in northwest Africa to bolster surveillance of Al-Qaeda's affiliate in the region and allied Islamist extremists, a US official told AFP on Monday.
The base for the robotic, unmanned aircraft would likely be located in Niger, on the eastern border of Mali, where French forces are currently waging a campaign against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, AFP reported.
The base was first reported by the New York Times earlier Monday.
The airfield would allow for better intelligence gathering by unarmed drones on the movement of AQIM and other militants, which Washington considers a growing threat, the official said.
If the plan gets the green light, up to 300 US military service members and contractors could be sent to the base to operate the drone aircraft, according to the New York Times.
US Africa Command was also looking at an alternative location for the base in Burkina Faso, the official said.
But State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland reiterated that there are no plans to commit US troops to any fighting on the ground.
"The US military is not going to be engaged in combat operations in Mali," she stressed, "and we don't expect US forces to become directly involved on the ground in combat either."
The United States and Niger signed a status of forces agreement Monday, which will provide legal safeguards for any American forces in the country. The Pentagon secures such agreements for base arrangements or troop deployments.
The French intervention in Mali, the recent hostage taking at an Algerian natural gas plant and the deadly assault on a US consulate in Libya in September has increased the demand in Washington for more intelligence on militants in the region.
As news emerged of the planned drone base, the Wall Street Journal reported that US military and intelligence officials were weighing plans to provide French fighter aircraft with sophisticated data to help them hunt down militants in Mali.
President Barack Obama's administration waited for more than two weeks before agreeing to offer aerial refueling tankers to the French forces, amid concerns among some advisers that assisting the French could draw the United States into an open-ended conflict.
The Obama administration has also provided transport planes to help ferry French weapons and troops and to share intelligence with Paris from surveillance aircraft, including reportedly unmanned Global Hawk spy planes.
But Nuland stressed a political situation was also needed for Mali.
"There has to be more than a purely security solution to the problems in Mali," she said, adding "the security track and the political track have to go hand in hand."
"A key component of returning stability to Mali includes new elections and overturning the results of the coup firmly."