September 30, 2016 - 6:04 AM
OTTAWA - As the Liberal government contemplates which United Nations peacekeeping mission to join, the Canadian military is gearing up to support a major French counter-terrorism operation in northern Africa.
Defence officials say planning is underway for Canada to send military transport aircraft to help France in its fight against Islamic militant groups in five countries: Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.
About 3,000 heavily armed French troops have been hunting al Qaeda-linked fighters in the region, called the Sahel, since August 2014. Code-named Operation Barkhane, the mission has also been recently tasked with supporting UN peacekeepers in Mali if required.
National Defence spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier said plans have not been finalized, but Canadian transport planes are expected to move French troops and equipment into the region.
Canadian military aircraft carried nearly 40 tonnes of equipment between France and Africa with three different flights last year. They also flew French armoured vehicles, medical supplies and ammunition into Mali in early 2013. French officials have repeatedly praised Canada's assistance.
The difference this time is that the Liberal government is considering whether to send Canadian peacekeepers to Mali, where the UN has been conducting a peacekeeping mission in parallel with the French counter-terrorism operations.
The peacekeeping mission is intended to stabilize the country after the Malian government and Tuareg rebels signed a peace agreement last year. The Tuaregs, a traditionally nomadic people who live in the north of Mali, had launched an uprising in 2012 aimed at gaining independence.
But the peace deal has been marred by fighting between competing Tuareg groups and by the presence of several Islamist militant groups, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the related Ansar Dine. Complicating matters is the fact drug trafficking to Europe is the only source of income for many locals.
The UN Security Council at the end of June agreed to beef up the peacekeeping mission's mandate to better protect its blue helmets in Mali, where more than 100 have died since 2013. It also opened the door to French forces from Operation Barkhane helping peacekeepers if they find themselves in trouble.
The Liberal government has said it will commit up to 600 troops to UN peacekeeping operations. It has not said where they will be deployed, though officials from National Defence, Global Affairs and the RCMP conducted a "reconnaissance mission" to Mali last month.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan would not say Thursday when the government will make a decision on where to send peacekeepers, but he said addressing terrorism is one aspect of bringing peace and stability to a region like the Sahel.
"If you want to try to bring peace into an area, we can't have a terrorist organization and radical groups undermining some of those efforts as we try to ease the tensions for various other conflicts as well," he said. "It has to be addressed."
Some of the other UN missions that Canada could join are in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Colombia.
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News from © The Canadian Press, 2016