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The Canadian military plans to send a team back to Mali next month to work with Romanian peacekeepers and minimize a pause in the provision of lifesaving medical evacuations to United Nations and Malian forces and civilians.

Canadian peacekeepers are to cease operations in Mali on Saturday and begin packing up their helicopters and equipment after more than a year in the sprawling West African country.

Yet while their Romanian replacements have started to arrive with help from Canadian Forces transport aircraft, the Romanians aren’t expected to be ready to fly medical missions until the middle of October.

To ensure they are ready, Col. Travis Morehen, commander of the Canadian contingent, says some of his troops will return to Mali for a week in September to teach their Romanian replacements the ropes. Those include helicopter crews, medical personnel and intelligence officers.

“I think that is going to be the kind of most important engagement that we’re going to have with the Romanians once they get on the ground to get them up to speed as soon as possible,” Morehen said in an interview Wednesday.

The 12-month Canadian mission was scheduled to wrap up all operations at the end of July, before the federal government extended the provision of medical evacuations another month to the end of August.

The Canadians had also been ferrying UN peacekeepers and civilians as well as equipment and supplies around the country; those operations were not extended past July.

The UN had asked Canada to keep all its peacekeepers in Mali until the middle of October to prevent any gap between the end of the Canadian mission and the start of the Romanian one.

Asked about the impact on the UN of Canada’s decision to end transport missions in July, Morehen acknowledged: “They’ve felt a bit of a difference.”

But he said the UN was given enough time to be able to “adjust” by turning to civilian contract helicopters, which will also be used for medical evacuations until the Romanians are ready.

The UN, which has faced shrinking budgets for peacekeeping, had argued extending Canada’s mission to October would be more cost-effective, given that Canada already has the people and equipment in Mali for the mission.

Civilian helicopters are also unable to provide the medical treatment the Canadians are set up to offer, the UN also said, and are more restricted in when and where they can operate.

Barring an emergency before Saturday, the Canadian mission will wrap up having conducted 11 evacuations since August 2018, the most recent of them two weeks ago when some civilian contractors were injured by an improvised explosive device.

Also among 42 people evacuated by the Canadian contingent have been fellow peacekeepers, UN civilian staff, several French counter-terror troops and civilians injured when their bus hit an IED in April.

While Morehen pointed to the assistance provided in those emergencies as proof of the importance of Canada’s contribution to the UN mission, he also said there were some challenges.

One of those was the sometimes hours-long delay between an incident and the Canadians getting airborne as UN officials in the capital Bamako determined whether to deploy the helicopters.

Those delays were cited as a major concern by the German peacekeepers that Canada replaced last year, with the Germans blaming the problem on UN officials weighing the costs of such evacuation missions.

However, Morehen suggested several reasons for the delays, including Mali’s poor telecommunications infrastructure and the UN’s having to ensure sending the helicopters to one place wouldn’t leave peacekeepers without help somewhere else.

Morehen nevertheless acknowledged the need to minimize delays, particularly given the importance of speed in responding to medical emergencies, and said Canada and others have been pushing for less red tape from the UN.

The UN did authorize the deployment of non-Canadian medical helicopters within an hour during one recent IED attack, which Morehen hoped represented some progress on the matter.

“We were very pleasantly surprised that within an hour, and I think it was less than an hour, the UN authorized support,” he said. “And so that’s outstanding.”

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