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U.S. spy drones aiding Mali conflict

March 4, 2013 at 10:34 AM

ACCRA, Ghana, March 4 (UPI) -- The United States is supplying intelligence obtained by surveillance drones to French and African allies fighting extremists in Mali, officials say.

Information from the drones allowed French forces to launch nearly 60 strikes against military targets in mountains where the militants are hiding, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

Chadian forces said Saturday they used drone data to kill Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who masterminded the January attack on the Algerian gas plant in which at least 38 employees died.

Before authorizing use of drones in the Mali conflict, the White House engaged in a lengthy debate over how to directly aid French forces without becoming a "co-belligerent" in the fighting, possibly drawing the wrath of extremists against U.S. citizens and interests in the region, said U.S. officials.

It's a test of President Barack Obama's new strategy to deal with the growing terrorist threat in Africa: Rather than sending in troops to directly engage the enemy in an area where it has few bases, Washington is providing logistical, technical and intelligence support to local and regional forces involved in the head-to-head combat.

The strategy has its drawbacks. In Pakistan, the U.S. uses armed drones to seek out and target extremists. In Mali, there is lag time. The U.S. provides only raw data from the drones to French and African forces, which then analyze it and decide how and when to use it.

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