Canada’s peacekeeping contingent will stick around in Mali for an extra few weeks this summer in order to smooth the transition for the next country set to provide helicopter support for the United Nations mission in the war-torn country.
A detachment of helicopters providing transport and medical evacuation to the large UN mission was supposed to depart on July 31.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced Friday there will be a phased withdrawal of the two CH-147F Chinook helicopters — one of which is specially outfitted as a mobile air ambulance and surgical suite — as well as four armed CH-146 Griffon choppers, which provide escort.
Canada will continue to provide air medical support until the end of August, the ministers said following question period in the House of Commons.
“This is a practical and pragmatic plan to ensure a smooth transition,” said Freeland.
A contingent of Romanian helicopters is slated to replace the Canadian detachment this summer, but there were concerns it would not be in theatre and operational until fall.
UN pushed for longer stay
Canada has faced repeated calls from the UN and at least one opposition party to stay for a few extra weeks to ensure there is no gap in service.
UN officials had warned the House of Commons defence committee that an interruption in service would mean that it would have to rely on civilian contractors which don’t provide the same level of support.
Sajjan said Canada will use its C-17 Globemaster heavy-lift transports to help the Romanians get into Mali — something the Commons defence committee recommended.
He insisted the decision 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,” Sajjan said. “However, to conduct a smooth transition, we are going to be focusing strictly on medical evacuations so we can start doing that transition, and this will allow for that gradual handover.”
Since the Canadian helicopters deployed last July, they have done 10 medical evacuations. Sajjan said the troop transport function, which the UN has insisted is helpful in maintaining stability, will be scaled back during the transition period.
It’s not clear why the government was reluctant to push the handover to October, but testimony before the Commons defence committee suggested military planners were anxious to bring the helicopters home so they can be available for domestic deployments involving natural disasters.
The military increasingly has been called upon to send troops and equipment to help with flooding in eastern Canada and wildfire relief in the West.