By Tiemoko Diallo

BAMAKO (Reuters) - The United States will seek ways it can help French and African forces in Mali combat al Qaeda-linked rebels, U.S. Senator John McCain said on Tuesday during a visit to the West African country.

France launched a military offensive in Mali in January against Islamist militants threatening the capital. That drove the insurgents out of the towns they had seized, but they have since hit back with suicide attacks and guerrilla-style raids.

Western powers are concerned that Mali's vast and lawless Saharan desert could become a launchpad for international militant attacks. Other European governments have ruled out sending combat troops but are backing a military training force. McCain said Washington wanted to offer some support too.

"We will work with the French forces, assess the French and allied forces on the ground, and see to what extent we can provide equipment, training, and technology to rid Mali of these rebels which include al Qaeda," McCain, who was a presidential contender in 2008, told reporters.

"Our target is also drug traffickers," the Republican senator said during a visit to Bamako with Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse to meet President Dioncounda Traore.

The former French colony is due to hold presidential and legislative elections in July - vital steps to stabilizing the gold and cotton producer after a military coup a year ago that left a power vacuum which was exploited by the rebels.

France is hoping to reduce its 4,000-strong force in Mali to 1,000 by the end of the year as it hands over to a regional African peacekeeping force and the Malian army.

A first battalion of 600 Malian soldiers arrived at a training camp in Koulikoro, about 60 km (40 miles) northeast of the capital, on Tuesday to begin training under the European Union training mission to Mali (EUTM).

The EU mission said 100 instructors from France, Britain, Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Lithuania and Luxemburg would train the Malian soldiers for at least 10 weeks.

The 500-strong EU training force will give military instruction to Malian soldiers for an initial period of 15 months at an estimated cost of 12.3 million euros ($15.79 million).

($1 = 0.7789 euros)

(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)