Skip to main content

French soldiers listen as Malian President Dioncounda Traore speaks at a Malian air base in Bamako on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. French troops launched their first ground assault against Islamist rebels in Mali on Wednesday in a broadening of their operation against al-Qaeda-linked fighters who have resisted six days of air strikes.JOE PENNEY/Reuters

France is looking for financial backing from Canada and the world to support the international military mission in Mali, says the country's Canadian envoy.

Ambassador Philippe Zeller said his country is grateful for Canada's contribution of a military transport plane to the Mali mission, but says money is needed to support the international force, which will eventually be buttressed by 2,500 French troops.

"Of course, it's up to Canada," Mr. Zeller said in a wide-ranging interview prior to his meeting Wednesday with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and the ambassadors from Mali and the Ivory Coast.

Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara is current chair of the Economic Community of West African States, a key regional bloc.

Mr. Zeller said last month's United Nations resolution supporting Mali opens the door for Canada and other countries to provide funds to support the international mission of African and French troops that is about to take on al-Qaida-linked forces occupying the country's north.

"We understand that every opportunity to help and intervene is still on the table with the exception, clearly expressed by the prime minister at the beginning of last week," Mr. Zeller said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has ruled out any Canadian combat contribution, saying that's not how he interprets the UN resolution urging support of Mali.

Zeller said, though, that Canada and all 190-plus members of the UN can still respond to the resolution "to provide funds, to finance the training of the Malian troops, to fund the inter-African troops, to train, to help at every level."

Mr. Harper has said Canada would focus on diplomatic solutions and humanitarian assistance. Canada's loan of a C-17 transport plane is good for one week, to see France through the logistical set-up of its combat mission to oust Islamist extremist forces in Mali's north.

Mr. Zeller said Africa represents the world's next economic growth area, and terrorists must not be allowed to establish a base, as they have in Mali's north.

"Clearly we also think Africa is the future of the world economy and that's very important. And we all know how important Mali is in the neighbourhood for natural resources and also its proper development."

Some critics are urging Harper not to be gun-shy about sending troops to Mali. After all, they say, Canada fought in Afghanistan.

Mr. Zeller rejects all comparisons between Mali and Afghanistan, though he agrees the threat of terrorism must be contained before it destabilizes West Africa.

"We do not make that exact comparison. There are some objective aspects where it is very difficult to set up a comparison – historical, geographical, territorial and so on," he said.

"Secondly, it's clear that it's not only an attack on Mali itself but the security of the entire West African region. In that sense, I would not share the view that there is no major interest of other countries."

France is increasingly taking on the role of the world's policeman in Africa, while Canada is following the U.S. and British and staying in the background.

Mr. Zeller disagrees with the view that France is being left alone by its Western allies to do the heavy lifting in Mali.

"I will not say that France is alone actually," said Mr. Zeller, noting contributions from across Europe and North America.

"I wouldn't say there is no real interest. The fact is that France took the decision to act extremely rapidly due to the circumstances, but we see global support everywhere."

He highlighted the European Union plans for a military training mission expected in late February or early March.

Britain is sending two heavy-lift military transports while the U.S. is to provide intelligence-gathering assistance, but has not ruled out lending extra air support.

Germany said Wednesday it will send two military aircraft to help transport African troops, while Italy said it was prepared to offer logistical support for air operations. Germany also pledged the equivalent of $1.3-million for humanitarian aid.

France answered a direct plea from Mali's president to intervene, when it appeared the insurgents in the north were in a position to make gains in the south, including the capital Bamako, which is currently a safe enclave.

Last Friday, France answered with the first of what would be more than four dozen air strikes on the Islamist forces.

Mr. Zeller said France had no choice but "to intervene as soon as possible when it was obvious that these terrorist troops were deciding to attack the south part of the country. It's now clear that with non-intervention we could have had a situation in Bamako that would be very bad."

Now, the counter attack is set to begin, and it will be preceded by two days of heavy airlifts to prepare, he said.

Mr. Zeller said the imminent addition of 900 fresh Nigerian troops is also welcomed.

They are to be joined by hundreds of fighters from Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Niger, Togo and Senegal.

Mr. Zeller said the Canadian links to Mali are undeniable. It was the country's fourth-largest aid contributor prior to last March's military coup that created the power vacuum that sparked the occupation of the north.

"When Canada helped some international or regional missions for training troops and military schools and military training, when Canada sent experts to help Mali in its rural activities and also in its mining development, it's useful to create that link," said Mr. Zeller.