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WASHINGTON, Jan 23 (Reuters) - The United States cannot permit northern Mali to become a safe-haven for Islamist rebels that could eventually pose a more direct threat to U.S. interests, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday.
Clinton, testifying to a Senate committee about the deadly September attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, called the growing international campaign against Islamist fighters in northern Mali a response to "a very serious, ongoing threat."
"We are in for a struggle, but it is a necessary struggle. We cannot permit northern Mali to become a safe haven," Clinton said.
U.S. military planes have helped to ferry French soldiers and equipment to Mali after France launched air strikes and deployed some 2,150 ground forces this month to halt a surprise Islamist offensive toward the Mali capital Bamako.
The United States is also helping to train and equip African forces from the ECOWAS regional group of West African countries who are also mobilizing to join the battle. U.S. officials stress there are no plans to dispatch U.S. combat troops.
Clinton said the security situation in northern Mali is complicated by an inflow of weapons from neighboring Libya following the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. She said such weapons were also used in an attack by militants on an Algerian gas plant this month.
"There is no doubt that the Algerian terrorists had weapons from Libya. There is no doubt that the Malian remnants of AQIM have weapons from Libya," she said, referring to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the regional affiliate of the al Qaeda network.
She said the United States must prepare for the possibility that groups like AQIM could threaten direct attacks on U.S. interests as they gain power.
"You can't say because they haven't done something they're not going to do it," Clinton said. "This is not only a terrorist syndicate, it is a criminal enterprise. So make no mistake about it, we've got to have a better strategy," she said. (Reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Will Dunham)