Neither France nor Europe will intervene militarily to oust al-Qaida and its allies from northern Mali — not even with air strikes, 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-Qaida-linked fighters more than six months ago. The plan requires U.N. Security Council approval, which could come within weeks. Europe and the United States have taken a supporting role.
The situation in Mali is also 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.
Le Drian, speaking to reporters in Paris, reiterated France's longstanding stance that it will not 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 that would mean no French attacks from the air either.
"As for air support, neither Europe nor France will intervene militarily," 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."
Other officials have indicated that France could use drones to provide surveillance for ground forces from other countries that are deployed to Mali.
President Francois Hollande, speaking at his first news conference since taking office in May, put a formal, final stamp on the issue of French soldiers taking part in the fighting, saying: "In no case will we intervene."
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. Since then, the Islamic extremists have imposed a strict form of Shariah law.
Hollande warned that the Sahel region, which Mali is part of, "is the greatest danger for our country." He said some French citizens are known to be in Mali "and participate" alongside terrorists.
France, a former colonial power in West Africa that still has military bases there, fears that the vast desert area under control of Al-Qaida'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-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," Issoufou told reporters on the sidelines of a Paris conference on economic development in Niger. "I think that the risks of non-intervention are greater than the risks of intervention. So we must intervene."
Ecowas, the Economic Community of West African States, 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.
Issoufou declined to say how quickly an operation could begin once 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."
Security analysts and diplomats say a deployment of troops to north Mali could take months to implement.
"Each country will have its way of intervening," Ecowas President Kadre Desire Ouedraogo told the AP at the Niger conference in Paris. "What I can say is that we've received promises of support from nearly all of our partners — whether it's the European Union, the United Nations, France or the United States and others."
Europe's possible role in defusing the Mali crisis will be high on the agenda Thursday as defense and foreign ministers from five major European Union members — France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain — meet in Paris to discuss ways of improving Europe's joint defense capabilities.