Citing an anonymous source in the French Defence Ministry, AP says that France plans to move two surveillance drones to west Africa from Afghanistan before the end of the year as part of an increasing role in the Malian conflict.
France is not believed to have any armed drones.
Hundreds of jihadists arrived in northern Mali over the weekend to help fight a military intervention there, according to residents, Malian security forces and Islamists.
The Tuareg separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad denied the report, however.
US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson and other American diplomats are meeting their French counterparts for two days in Paris, starting Monday.
They will discuss intelligence-gathering and security in the Sahel.
The French defence official told AP that Washington has “conferred to us the role of leader” in the crisis.
France, the former colonial ruler of Mali, has airpower and hundreds of troops in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad and Gabon, which were also once French colonies, French and US officials said, while the US has only trainers and advisers on temporary missions, according to Africom, the US military Africa command based in Stuttgart, Germany.
France is also reported to have special forces in the region and to have contracted out surveillance of Mali to a private company.
US awareness of Islamist presence in the Sahel has increased since the attack on its consulate in Beghazi, Libya, which saw the US ambassador and three other Americans killed and Washington has started satellite and spy-flight surveillance to track rebel movements.
France and the UN, which ordered secretary general Ban Ki-moon, want west African countries to organise a direct military invention in northern Mali, where armed Islamist groups have taken control following Tuareg separatist rebellion.
President François Hollande has promised not to send French troops while offering logistical support and training to the west African force.
Paris has resumed military cooperation with Bamako, suspended after March’s military coup there, including sending military advisers, Sahel special envoy Jean Féliw-Paganon said late on Sunday.
Hollande is anxious to avoid direct intervention for several reasons:
- Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) has threatened to kill six French hostages if France sends in the troops;
- On his recent trip to Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo he promised to turn his back on Françafrique – a policy often denounced as neo-colonialism;
- After the Afghan and Iraq wars France, like other countries, prefers to leave local forces to intervene in hot spots.
Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday said that Germany would be prepared to train Malian troops and provide logistical support and European Union members are considering a non-combat training mission.