* U.S. has 'commitment' to keep al Qaeda on run
* Pentagon chief to discuss Azores drawdown decision
* Likely Panetta's last trip abroad as defense secretary
LISBON, Jan 14 (Reuters) - The United States is sharing
information with French forces battling al Qaeda-affiliated
militants in Mali and is considering providing logistics,
surveillance and airlift capability as well, U.S. defense
officials said on Monday.
"We have made a commitment that al Qaeda is not going to
find anyplace to hide," U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told
reporters on his plane as he began a week-long tour of European
Just as the United States pursued militants affiliated with
al Qaeda to northern Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, "we have a
responsibility to make sure that al Qaeda does not establish a
base for operations in North Africa in Mali," he said.
France intervened in Mali on Friday in an effort to block an
advance by rebels who the West fear could use the West African
nation as a launching pad for international attacks.
Paris has poured hundreds of troops into the Malian capital
and carried out more air raids on Monday in the vast desert area
seized last year by al Qaeda's north African wing AQIM and
Mali's home-grown MUJWA and Ansar Dine militant groups.
Panetta praised France for the steps it had taken and said
he had been in talks with French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le
Drian about what assistance he needed. The Pentagon was looking
at providing help in three areas, he added.
"One is obviously to provide limited logistical support,
two is to provide intelligence support and three to provide some
airlift capability," Panetta told the briefing on his plane.
A senior U.S. defense official said the United States was
already sharing information with the French and would continue
to do so.
Panetta declined to say whether the intelligence support
would be in the form of satellite images or unmanned
reconnaissance aircraft. He indicated the airlift support under
discussion involved cargo planes and a defense official said the
logistic support included tanker aircraft for aerial refueling.
"We are engaged in those discussions. Africom (U.S. Africa
Command) is discussing this with France and will continue to
work with them to ensure that ultimately we do stop AQIM," said
Panetta, who received a briefing from the head of Africom,
General Carter Ham, during his flight to Lisbon.
THREAT TO U.S., EUROPE
Panetta said the aim of the intervention was to disrupt
rebel advances in Mali and to give time for the ECOWAS grouping
of African nations to respond on the ground.
"The responsibility for assuring security in that region
will be passed to African nations to provide a more permanent
security for the sake of the world," he said.
"While they might not have any immediate plans for attacks
in the United States and Europe ... ultimately that still
remains their objective and it's for that reason that we have to
take steps now to ensure that AQIM does not get that kind of
traction," Panetta said.
His comments came at the outset of a trip that is likely to
be his last as U.S. defense secretary and will take him to
Lisbon, Madrid, Rome and London.
Describing himself as a "son of Europe," the
Italian-American defense secretary said it was appropriate to
finish his time in office with a visit to NATO partners, adding
that he wanted to underscore the importance of the alliance to a
new generation of Europeans.
Panetta said he would brief his counterparts on talks last
week between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. President
Karzai and Obama discussed the nature of the U.S. military
presence, if any, in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of
most combat troops at the end of 2014.
They agreed that Afghan forces would take the lead role for
security beginning this spring, in what was described as a
slight acceleration of the mid-2013 transition timetable.
Panetta, the first U.S. defense secretary to visit Portugal
in 30 years, said he would discuss plans to reduce the U.S.
military presence at Lajes Air Field in the Azores.