- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 13, 2012

PARIS — Neither France nor Europe will intervene militarily to oust al Qaeda and its allies from northern Mali — not even with airstrikes, the French defense minister said Tuesday.

Jean-Yves Le Drian spoke two days after West African nations agreed to send some 3,300 troops to help Mali’s tenuous government wrest control of the country’s vast north that was seized by al Qaeda-linked fighters more than six months ago.

The plan requires U.N. Security Council approval, which could come within weeks.

Europe and the U.S. have taken a supporting role. The situation in Mali also is offering an opening to Europe to jolt its often-plodding effort to build a more-unified EU defense policy, which has long been overshadowed by American-led NATO but has shown promise in areas such as the fight against piracy off the coast of Somalia.

Mr. Le Drian, speaking to reporters in Paris, reiterated France’s stance that it will not to send ground forces in support of the planned international effort led by African troops in Mali.

But this time, he sought to make clear that would mean no French attacks from the air either.

“As for air support, neither Europe nor France will intervene militarily,” Mr. Le Drian told the European American Press Club. “When we say no troops on the ground, that means ‘troops in the air,’ too. But bringing in information, intelligence is another thing.”

Mutinous soldiers overthrew Mali’s democratically elected president in March, creating a power vacuum that paved the way for Islamists to grab the north — an area the size of France. In the more than six months since then, the Islamic extremists have imposed a strict form of Shariah law.

France, a former colonial power in West Africa that still has military bases there, fears that the vast desert area under control of al Qaeda’s North African branch and its allies could become a sanctuary for terrorists to plot attacks in Europe or seize Western hostages.

A French defense official recently told The Associated Press that France was preparing to transfer by year’s end two unarmed surveillance drones to Africa from Afghanistan, where French combat troops have been pulling out of the NATO-led mission.

Separately Tuesday, Niger President Issoufou Mahamadou said a military operation involving Malian troops and forces from the West African bloc Ecowas “is within our reach” — if necessary logistical support, intelligence gathering, surveillance from the air and ground forces come together.

“We have two choices, either intervene or not intervene,” Mr. Issoufou told reporters on the sidelines of a Paris conference on economic development in Niger. “I think that the risks of nonintervention are greater than the risks of intervention. So we must intervene.”

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) agreed at an emergency summit Sunday in Lagos, Nigeria, to a strategic concept and plans to send about 3,300 troops from around the bloc alongside 5,000 Malian troops, according to officials close to the talks. The U.S. and France could provide support from the air.

Mr. Issoufou declined to say how quickly an operation could begin after the Security Council votes.

“I think the force is ready,” he said. “The [strategic] concept will be transmitted to the African Union, which is going to transmit it to the United Nations, and a resolution will be voted probably in late November or early December. ECOWAS states are ready to send the various contingents that will make up the intervention force.”

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