Canada’s operations in the African nation were supposed to cease at the end of July and the eight helicopters and 250 military personnel providing transportation and logistics help in a UN mission there were to come home.
The UN had asked Canada to stay until October, when Romanian troops take over, to minimize a gap in providing lifesaving medical evacuations for injured UN peacekeepers.
Global Affairs Canada said Friday that operations will wind down after July 31 and gradually be restricted to only medical evacuations until Aug. 31.
A small Canadian transition team will help Romania set up its operations, including the use of C-17 airplanes to help get troops and equipment into the country.
The department said in a statement that the decision reflects strategic advice from the Canadian Forces and should “minimize disruption” in medical evacuation services.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan insisted the announcement doesn’t mean the government is extending the mission.
“Up until the end of July, we will maintain all the missions that we’ve been conducting. However, to conduct a smooth transition we are going to be focusing strictly on medical evacuations so we can start doing that transition,” he told reporters outside the House of Commons. “And this will allow for that gradual handover.”
The six-year-old United Nations mission in Mali is trying to stabilize the country after a rebellion and a coup. It includes about 16,500 personnel, mostly from other African countries.
Since Canadian troops arrived last July, they have done 10 medical evacuations, Global Affairs said.
The government also said that Canadian helicopters have also spent more than 3,000 hours in the air, moving 6,400 passengers and almost 168,000 kilograms—or more than 370,000 pounds—of cargo. Hired civilian contractors can do some of the same work but in much more limited circumstances. They won’t rescue wounded peacekeepers under fire, for instance.
Sajjan told reporters “troops on the ground will always have that medical evacuation” through the transition, but not cargo transport.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland called the change in plans a “practical and pragmatic plan to ensure a smooth transition between the Canadian and Romanian rotations” in Mali. She said the Romanians would have access to “four C-17 aircraft flights” to help move personnel and equipment.
The UN formally asked Canada at the end of the February to stay in Mali until mid-October. Freeland rejected that request following a March peacekeeping summit in New York.
The United Nations had told MPs on the House of Commons defence committee that peacekeepers would be forced to scale down operations without the Canadians or Romanians available for emergency evacuations.
Sajjan said Canada doesn’t have an exact date when Romania’s contingent will arrive.
“But now, based on the information that we have, we’ve been able to come (to) the conclusion that having a thorough handover focusing strictly on medical-evacuation missions is going to allow for the same handover that we had received,” he said.
Why the government has refused to push the mission to October is unclear but the committee’s report on the mission suggested military officials were worried about the helicopters’ mechanical condition and want them ready for crises back home.
Others have linked the Liberals’ stance to an electoral calculation, with the fall federal campaign winding up with a vote in late October.