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Islamist rebels from the Ansar Dine faction prepare to pray in the desert just outside Gao, Mali, in May.Diakaridia Dembele/The Associated Press

Canada is not considering sending troops to Mali to help deal with the unfolding crisis in the West African nation, where Islamic extremists hold vast swaths of territory.

While France and other countries say military intervention by foreign powers in Mali is probable, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Friday that Canada has no plans to deploy any soldiers to the country.

"Let me be clear that Canada is not contemplating a military mission in Mali," he said.

"We support the significant international diplomatic efforts to help restore democracy, led by the Economic Community of West African States, and we certainly stand ready to support the organization once its needs are identified.

"We have done a significant amount of work with the Economic Community of West African States in the past and we certainly stand ready to support them in the future."

The UN Security Council has condemned the military-led coup that ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure earlier this year and demanded a stop to the violence raging in the country's north.

Militants linked to al-Qaeda have seized Mali's three northern regions — an area roughly the size of France.

UNICEF, the UN children's fund, says children are being sexually abused and recruited into armed groups. The agency says the militants have forcibly recruited at least 175 boys between the ages of 12 and 18, while girls have been raped and sexually abused.

"Children in the north are witnessing or becoming victims of violence and they must be protected," Theophane Nikyema, UNICEF's representative in Mali, said in a statement this week.

Hundreds of thousands of Malian refugees have fled to neighbouring countries or been internally displaced.

There is a growing sense that the threat from Islamic extremism posed by al-Qaeda in Mali and other countries across the Sahel is comparable to the situation in Afghanistan.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has warned that western powers may be drawn into the conflict.

"Once the rule of law is re-established in the south, one must look at the north, meaning that at some point it's probable there will be use of force," he said in Paris this week, adding the Africans would lead any intervention with support from international forces.

The Economic Community of West African States aims to deploy up to 5,000 troops to fight the Islamic extremists. The United States, France and the UN Security Council have agreed to provide logistical support for such an operation.

On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama authorized the release of up to $10-million for emergency relief efforts in northern Mali.

"We call on the rebel groups in northern Mali to renounce any connection with terrorist groups and enter into legitimate political negotiations," Tommy Vietor, a National Security Council spokesman, said in a statement.

"In addition, we urge all parties to ensure neutral, impartial, and unhindered humanitarian access to all populations in northern Mali."