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The frigate HMCS Charlottetown, right, sits in Halifax harbour on March 1, 2011, as it prepares to deploy to Libya. (ANDREW VAUGHAN/The Canadian Press)
The frigate HMCS Charlottetown, right, sits in Halifax harbour on March 1, 2011, as it prepares to deploy to Libya. (ANDREW VAUGHAN/The Canadian Press)

Canada girds for substantial military role in North Africa Add to ...

Canada is beefing up its military presence in the region around Libya, dispatching a patrol ship and special forces to prepare for more muscular evacuations that could evolve into major aid lifts or even a blockade to hem in the Gadhafi regime.

It marked a move to a more pointed role and a longer Canadian commitment to the Libyan crisis, as major powers also stepped up their presence. However, there was no consensus for a direct intervention such as enforcing a no-fly zone.

The United States is moving two amphibious warships and 400 Marines to the region, but senior generals warned that enforcing a no-fly zone would be dangerous and complex, and Russia opposed such a move.

With world leaders warning that Libya could face a protracted civil war, there were concerns that foreign military intervention could actually bolster the position of embattled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Although Libya's opposition has until now insisted the world should not intervene with armed force, The New York Times reported that the nascent revolutionary council is debating whether to ask the West to intervene with air strikes under a United Nations banner.

Like the moves of U.S. forces, the dispatch of Canada's frigate HMCS Charlottetown, which sails Wednesday from Halifax with 240 Canadian Forces personnel aboard, represents a commitment of weeks or months of military presence.

Its first job is to set up command-and-control for evacuation efforts if they're still needed. Then it is likely to assist in aid operations to Libyans, and could finally end up as part of tougher international military "sanctions" against the regime, such as enforcing a blockade, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said.

Canadian special forces troops are now based in Malta, The Globe and Mail has learned, and are believed to be playing an active role in assisting evacuation missions to rescue Canadians and citizens from other countries.

With more than 100 Canadians still seeking a way out of Libya, including some in opposition-controlled areas of the country's east, Ottawa insisted that evacuations remain the top priority. The military is preparing for evacuation missions, with armed troops for protection, outside the capital of Tripoli.

One Canadian evacuation flight Sunday did evacuate one Canadian and 46 others from an oilfield near Ghat in southwest Libya.

Britain sent commandos in a weekend military mission to pluck 150 oil workers from the desert without permission from the Libyan government - but Mr. Mackay declined to say anything about the role of Canadian special forces.

He did say, however, that the Canadian military has authorized "force protection" for the evacuation missions flown by military C-17 and Hercules planes, including Canadian Forces crews that are "part of the force protection package."

And though those planes have so far flown mostly to Tripoli's airport - including a Hercules that was refused a landing spot at the crowded terminal Tuesday - he said that the Canadian Forces will fly evacuation missions into more far-flung regions of Libya outside the capital.

"Absolutely," Mr. MacKay said. "The smaller of the two aircraft, the C-130 Hercules, they can land on shorter, more austere airfields, that is to say some that aren't paved. That aircraft is a much more flexible type of extraction and we can go to other parts of the country other than Tripoli."

When asked if the Canadian Forces will attempt to do that, he said, "Yes."

France has sent two planes of medical aid into Libya, and Italy is also planning a major aid lift, with several European nations insisting that aid for opposition-controlled Libyan regions or displaced refugees should be the world's top priority. The Charlotteown, a patrol frigate similar to the one sent to aid Haiti in 2010, has a crew with engineers and technicians and can carry large quantities of supplies. It will take six days for it to sail to the Mediterranean.

"If sanctions deal with certain blockades or certain military, for example, going into the region, we are there for all inevitabilities. And NATO is looking at this as well," Mr. MacKay said. "We have other countries that have ships in the region as well so this is taken as a precautionary and staged measure."

At the moment, however, Canada and other Western nations insist that military intervention through blockades or no-fly zones are an option, but are not inevitable.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said the United States is reluctant to send its military into a third country in the region, but is trying to provide as many potential options as possible. And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said that enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, which has batteries of surface-to-air missiles, would be a highly complex operation.

And while some Western countries, notably Britain, has pushed for a no-fly zone, others such as France and Italy have stressed that humanitarian aid should be the priority, before military operations. Russia and China, which both hold vetoes on the United Nations Security Council, oppose the idea of military intervention, including a no-fly zone.

With reports from the NYT and AP

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