OTTAWA – Canada’s special forces are on the ground in Mali to help protect Canadian personnel who are already operating in the troubled African country, say sources within the Department of National Defence.
Few other details were immediately available, although the Department of Foreign Affairs went to lengths to spell out that the presence of special forces soldiers does not signal an involvement in combat.
“We have been clear; there will be no mission in Mali,” Rick Roth, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, said in a statement.
“Steps have been taken to ensure our mission and Canadian personnel are protected. We cannot comment on security specifics.”
Canadian Forces crews have been piloting and supporting Canada’s C-17 heavy-lift transport as it moves military equipment in support of French troops.
That mission, which was originally only supposed to last a week, is now scheduled to continue until Feb. 15.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Monday that any further role for Canada would require consultation with parliamentarians.
“We are providing technical assistance to French and other military forces who are there. We have committed heavy-lift aircraft to that engagement, which is being done under a United Nations mandate,” Harper told the House of Commons in response to a question from NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.
“Of course, through this chamber and through committees, we will be consulting with parliamentarians on any further steps that need to be taken.”
There had been speculation that the government would provide a smaller, C-130J Hercules transport to carry African troops into Mali, where forces are fighting to retake the northern half of the country from al-Qaida-linked militants.
The French had asked Canada to take on that role, but a number of other nations, including the United States and Britain, have kicked in air transports.
Harper has repeatedly ruled out “direct” Canadian military involvement in the campaign, which began on Jan. 10 with the arrival of as many as 2,500 French troops to defend Bamako, the capital.
However, Harper has consulted opposition parties in order to build a political consensus about whether there should be further support and how that might play out.
Baird, meanwhile, has sought to reassure allies that Canada appreciates fully the danger posed by having a branch of al-Qaida occupying territory and training jihadists in North Africa.
The Harper government has been under pressure from the African Union — and, perhaps more importantly, from countries bordering Mali that are plagued by Islamic insurgencies of their own — to take more decisive military action.
Mali, once one of the most stable democracies in Africa, has spiralled out of control since a group of junior army officers staged a coup in March 2012. That prompted international condemnation and led the Harper government to suspend humanitarian programs.
Aid is flowing again, but it is directed through international agencies and non-governmental organizations.
The chaos that followed the coup allowed three different, loosely allied hard-line Islamic groups — all of them affiliated with al-Qaida — to seize the northern half of the country.
The interim government in Bamako had been negotiating with some of the rebels when talks broke down in December. That was followed quickly by the United Nations authorizing a 3,300-member African intervention force to oust the guerrillas.
Before the force could be assembled, the militants attacked, prompting the French to dispatch its own intervention force.