Canada has joined with allies to support a military intervention in Africa, dispatching a heavy-lift military transport to assist France and the government of Mali in a battle with Islamist fighters.
The Harper government took great pains Monday, as the contribution to this multinational war effort was announced, to forestall concerns about mission creep by placing limits on Canada's military commitment to Mali.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged the help would be "of a short duration" and noted Canada is only providing the C-17 Globemaster for one week – to make deliveries to the Malian capital of Bamako, not within the combat zone, but as close as 350 kilometres to the fighting.
"The establishment of a terrorist region in the middle of Africa is of grave concern to the broader international community, including Canada and our close allies," the Prime Minister said.
Canada is also indirectly contributing to the fight in Mali by training soldiers in neighbouring Niger in counterterrorism tactics.
Al Qaeda-linked fighters who had seized control of Mali's vast north in April launched a new series of offensives last week, taking government-controlled towns and raising fears the entire country might fall.
This prompted France to launch military action to rescue its former colony Friday, and a West African force is preparing to bolster the Malian effort.
The C-17 was scheduled to depart CFB Trenton Tuesday at 8 a.m. ET and is expected to carry approximately 35 personnel such as flight crew and support staff.
The aircraft would not operate in any combat zone, Mr. Harper vowed. Nor would Canadian soldiers participate in direct action against insurgents.
"It is not our intention to see a direct Canadian military mission to Mali. We ultimately believe the burden of responsibility for that has to be taken by African nations," Mr. Harper said. The Canadian C-17 tasked to support operations could be used to ferry soldiers from other African nations to Mali, if the French ask, officials from Canada and other Western nations said.
Canadian government sources said it's possible Canada's plane contribution might be extended beyond one week if the French government requests it.
After Western nations pressed African countries to accelerate plans to deploy soldiers to Mali, the first elements of a multinational force from the West African ECOWAS bloc, numbering perhaps 500, now indicate they will be ready to arrive within the week, diplomats say. The force from the Economic Community of West African States is expected to include troops from Niger, Togo and Senegal.
A Canadian official said those troops and their supplies could be airlifted by the Canadian or British transport planes if the French, who are co-ordinating the effort, task them to do so.
It is still unclear how long it will take for the full ECOWAS force of 3,300 troops, previously expected to arrive only in September, to go to Mali. The government of Nigeria, the largest country and biggest military power in the region, has indicated that it will need one to three months to send about 400 troops, the sources said.
Britain has sent two C-17 heavy-lift cargo planes, although one is expected to make only one delivery before returning home. The second is to ferry cargo from Europe and the region for about a week, as will the Canadian Forces C-17. Denmark will send two Hercules tactical-lift cargo planes for transport within Africa.
France is now describing its operation as the first phase of efforts to fight jihadists in Mali. France's current operation, which the country's leaders say will last only weeks, is to help Mali stop the advances of Islamist extremist fighters, and set them back. A second phase, backed by 3,300 troops from West African nations, will be aimed at taking back Mali's north. After that, Mali will have to restore proper governance in the country, French officials say.
France's ambassador to Canada, Philippe Zeller, called the Canadian transport contribution "essential."
He said France is discussing with Ottawa whether Canada will offer money to supply the multinational African force. And Mr. Zeller said he believes it is still possible Canada might eventually offer some military trainers to prepare it.
"The most recent contacts I had at the end of last week, just as we were learning of the French operation, led me to believe all options are still open from the Canadian side. No direction has been decided definitively, except the one expressed by the Prime Minister, that there would be no involvement of [Canadian] troops in combat," Mr. Zeller said.
Ottawa is also indirectly helping Mali through Exercise Flintlock, an annual U.S.-run military training exercise for West Africa.
The Harper government is already in the early stages of providing military training to neighbouring Niger, one of the top countries providing soldiers to help fight the rebels in Mali and a participant in Flintlock.
Canada has sent almost two dozen Canadian Forces special operations personnel to train Niger troops in reconnaissance, land navigation, marksmanship and other basic military skills. The training will start in Niger, but the Canadians and troops from Niger will move to Mauritania for Flintlock, an approximately three-week exercise starting in late February. The Canadian trainers are expected home after mid-March.
Mr. Harper played down any connection between Canada's Niger training efforts and the help to Mali, suggesting one wouldn't blur into the other. "They are not directly related to that. They will proceed in the normal fashion and they will terminate in the normal fashion."