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US could resume direct Mali military aid if elections successful

ROUGH CUT (NO REPORTER NARRATION) The United States is likely to eventually resume direct support for Mali's military, but only after full restoration of democracy in the Sahel state through elections, the head of a U.S. Congress delegation visiting the country said on Monday (February 18). Senator Christopher Coons, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa, was leading the first American congressional visit to the West African nation since France sent a military force there last month to halt an offensive by al Qaeda-allied islamist insurgents. The United States has been providing airlift and refuelling support for transport planes bringing hundreds of French and African troops to Mali in a French-led offensive that has driven the Islamist rebels from a string of northern towns. Washington has also been sharing intelligence to back the operation, but has ruled out sending ground troops. Asked whether increased U.S. support for the military intervention in Mali could be forthcoming, Coons said American law prohibited direct U.S. assistance to Mali's armed forces because a military coup there last year had toppled the elected government and ended democracy in the country. "American law prohibits direct assistance to the Malian military following the coup until there is a restoration of a democratically elected government," Coons said. Heading a four-member delegation from both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, Coons said both French and Malian commanders were happy with the support that Washington was providing but he indicated they would welcome more. With French and African forces hunting the Islamist insurgent forces in Mali's remote northeast, interim President Dioncounda Traore has said his government will hold presidential and parliamentary elections in July. Coons, whose delegation held talks with Traore, said the United States would support the holding of successful and inclusive elections in Mali and he added: "I would think it is likely that we will renew our direct support for the Malian military but we all must work together first for a successful election." Coons said al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM and its allies in Mali and elsewhere posed a "very real threat" to Africa, the United States and the wider world and he said the United States wanted to be part of the response to this security challenge. Before last year's coup in Mali - led by a U.S.-trained Malian army captain - the American military had been providing combat training to several Malian army battalions. But this was quickly suspended after the coup, which plunged Mali into chaos and led to the occupation of its Saharan north by jihadists who hijacked a rebellion by Tuareg separatists. Although the French-led offensive has driven the bulk of the Islamist forces northwards back up to the Algerian border, there are fears their fighters and sympathisers could strike back with reprisal attacks in Africa and elsewhere. A top U.S. defence official last week called for international efforts to counter a "growing terrorist presence" of al Qaeda and its allies in Africa. Coons was accompanied on the one-day visit by Georgia Republican Senator Johnny Isakson, and Congresswomen Karen Bass from California and Terri Sewell from Alabama, both Democrats.

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