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U.S. Considers Involvement In Mali As Extremists Seize Territory

The U.S. is mulling over ways to help France, as the French military continues its bombing raids in Northern Mali. The State Department says it shares the French goal of restoring order in part of that African country which is now overrun by extremists, including an al-Qaida affiliate. But the U.S. has long argued that the solution needs to be African-led, so the Obama administration — while offering France some "limited logistical support" — is also trying to speed up efforts to train an African intervention force for Mali.

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With the situation getting worse in Mali, the U.N. Security Council called an emergency meeting for this afternoon. France has been seeking help from its partners. The U.S. is considering the request but wants to make sure that African countries take the lead in restoring order in Mali. The trouble, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, is that those African troops need training.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The United Nations was already working with West African states on an intervention plan to oust al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb from northern Mali, but everyone got a wake-up call last week when rebels started moving south. France quickly stepped in and now State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland says the U.S. is trying to figure out how best to help.

VICTORIA NULAND: We share the French goal of denying terrorists a safe haven. We are in consultation with the French now on a number of requests that they have made for support.

KELEMEN: She didn't give details. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters that the U.S. plans to help France gather intelligence and offer airlift capabilities because, in his words, the U.S. has a responsibility to go after al-Qaida wherever they are.

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: The fact is we have made a commitment that al-Qaida is not going to find any place to hide.

KELEMEN: The British Minister for Africa, Mark Simmonds, echoed that sentiment when he informed his parliament that Britain is offering limited logistical support but won't take part in combat.

MARK SIMMONDS: We must not allow northern Mali to become a springboard for extremism and create instability in the wider West African region. The ferocity and fanaticism of the extremists in northern Mali must not be allowed to sweep unchecked into the country's capital.

KELEMEN: It will take much more than French bombing raids to help Mali restore order in the north, says Nuland of the U.S. State Department. She says the West African group known as ECOWAS was too leisurely in planning its intervention but is holding a key meeting later this week.

NULAND: Our sense from our ECOWAS contacts is that they are rolling up their sleeves now to try to get in as quickly as they can.

KELEMEN: Nuland says the U.S. is poised to send trainers to any African country willing to participate but there is no military solution to the crisis in Mali, she acknowledges. Retired U.S. Army Colonel Thomas Dempsey of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies agrees.

THOMAS DEMPSEY: We need to recognize that there were legitimate grievances among the northern peoples that led to this in the first place. And we need to take care not to drive the people of the north into the arms of the violent extremists through injudicious military solutions.

KELEMEN: Extremists took over northern Mali after a coup toppled the government in the capital, Bamako, and Dempsey thinks that's where U.S. diplomats can play a role trying to help the country restore constitutional order. And he says much is at stake for the entire region, a drought-prone part of Africa known as the Sahel.

DEMPSEY: As you follow from eastern Mauritania across northern Mali into northern Burkina Faso, Niger, northern Nigeria, that whole area is chronically sensitive to this kind of destabilization, and this could turn into a much, much larger problem politically, economically and in humanitarian terms.

KELEMEN: Human Rights Watch has been raising alarms about the threats to civilians as the fighting intensifies. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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