After days of balking, the federal government has put members of its embattled Disaster Assistance Response Team on alert for possible deployment to tsunami-ravaged Asia -- but it's still scrambling to rent air transport and has not yet ordered troops to their takeoff site.
Although the humanitarian crisis is now one week old, officials said it could still be a few days before Ottawa decides whether DART will be sent to help.
Brigadier-General Brett Cairns said the military served verbal notice early yesterday afternoon to the 200 members of the rapid-response team.
"They are recalling people as the first step because a lot of [them]are still on leave, so they have got to make sure all the people are back that they would need to deploy," Gen. Cairns said, adding that the alert will also give soldiers time to prepare personal equipment.
But DART members won't be officially ordered to report to their Trenton, Ont., embarkation point until Ottawa decides whether to send them.
"They are not moving yet; they are being told to prepare to move," Gen. Cairns said.
He noted that the government won't be able to decide whether to send the team until a reconnaissance unit arriving in Colombo, Sri Lanka, today offers an assessment of whether DART is needed.
Asked how long it will take to make a decision about deployment, Gen. Cairns said: "I think we are talking days."
A senior Canadian government official said it could take up to a week to hear from the reconnaissance team, but suggested deployment at some point was likely.
"It may well go; we did not send the reconnaissance team for show," the official said.
Ottawa came under heavy fire this week for its hesitancy in sending DART, which can operate field hospitals, purify water and repair basic infrastructure and communications.
The rapid-response team was set up in 1996 amid much fanfare, but has seen little action. It has been deployed twice, most recently to earthquake-rocked Turkey in 1999. It has a $250,000 annual budget and a full-time staff of 15 people. Other members are pulled in as needed from the rest of the Canadian Forces.
The government, which had cautioned all week that it wasn't sure DART was the "right tool" to help the disaster-stricken region, offered no explanation for the change in its position. Officials said only that they had never written off the team.
The conclusion that DART should be put on alert was reached just hours before an afternoon news conference yesterday. It emerged from a high-level interdepartmental committee in Ottawa that's directing Canada's response to the crisis.
"That was a very recent decision," Gen. Cairns said of the alert.
The airlift-strapped military is trying to charter a heavy-duty plane for the job, such as an Antonov 124, which could take some effort to procure.
Such planes are so-called strategic airlift carriers: massive jets that can carry half a dozen trucks or four tanks or several hundred troops.
"It might be very difficult indeed because I suspect all sorts of countries are probably trying to rent Antonovs to fly stuff to Asia at the moment," said Jack Granatstein, a fellow at the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute. "My guess is there will be a lineup for these things and if I was the owner of the Antonovs, I would be jacking the price up right now."
Gen. Cairns said Ottawa would require four Antonov loads to transport all of DART.
Officials said estimates for each return trip are about $1.6-million (U.S.), adding that it could take about one day for an Antonov to make the trip to Asia.
Retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie called the DART warning order a "pretty modest first step" and decried Ottawa's unhurried pace in dispatching what is supposed to be a rapid-response unit. "If everybody reacted at our rate, then obviously there wouldn't be anybody there yet."
Stockwell Day, the Conservative foreign affairs critic, said Ottawa's failure to quickly deploy DART has exposed how unprepared it is.
"It seems clear now that, contrary to any past government statements, we in fact do not have a rapid-response team ready to be deployed to a disaster within 24 to 48 hours," Mr. Day said, adding this "raises serious questions about emergency response on our own shores."
Yesterday, a Canadian Armed Forces plane arrived in Colombo to deliver 30 pallets of humanitarian aid. The goods included 800 rolls of plastic sheeting for use as temporary shelters, 2,300 jerry can water containers and 35 boxes of water purification tablets.