OTTAWA, Mar 17 – Canadian peacekeepers backed by helicopters will join UN Blue Helmets in the troubled west African nation of Mali before autumn, a government source said on Friday.
Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan is to provide details of the number of troops on Monday, said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity about what will be Canada’s first mission to Africa since Rwanda in 1994.
Jihadists have ramped up their activities in central Mali in recent months, targeting domestic and foreign forces in violence once confined to the country’s north.
Four United Nations peacekeepers were killed and four wounded in late February when a mine exploded under their vehicle in central Mali.
The peacekeeping mission, known by the acronym MINUSMA, currently has more than 13,000 military personnel and 1,900 police.
They have been deployed in Mali since 2013 to counter the jihadist insurgency and general lawlessness.
Canada’s contingent to MINUSMA will also include police and will provide “logistical support and assistance” during a planned 12-month mission, the government source said, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose countries are already part of MINUSMA.
“Everybody is interested in reinforcing Sahel security,” the Canadian source said.
Islamic extremists linked to Al-Qaeda took control of Mali’s desert north in early 2012, but were largely driven out in a French-led military operation launched in January 2013.
In June 2015, Mali’s government signed a peace agreement with some armed groups, but the jihadists remain active, and large tracts of the country are lawless.
In November, Trudeau said Canada would boost its support for UN peacekeeping missions by mobilizing a “quick reaction force” of 200 soldiers that would be backed by tactical helicopters and Hercules transport aircraft.
The numbers fell short of Trudeau’s initial pledge of 600 troops but marked a recommitment to multilateralism after his predecessor Stephen Harper sought distance from the United Nations during his decade in office.
It was not immediately clear if the quick reaction troops are the ones being assigned to Mali, a former French colony.
France has 4,000 troops in the area as part of its Operation Barkhane anti-jihadist mission.
Two French soldiers from that contingent were killed and another was hurt in late February when their vehicle struck a mine in northeast Mali, an attack claimed by a jihadist alliance.
Mali and neighboring countries belong to a new G5 Sahel force, to become fully operational in mid-2018, that will work alongside MINUSMA and the French contingent.
Canada’s General Romeo Dallaire commanded the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) from October 1993 to August 1994.
He has been credited with saving tens of thousands of Rwandans during the troubled mission, which left him with deep psychological scars, an experience detailed in his autobiography “Shake Hands With The Devil.”