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West African army officers arrive at a meeting for plans for the intervention force provided by the ECOWAS grouping of West African states, in Bamako January 15, 2013.JOE PENNEY/Reuters

Canada has sent its ambassador to tell Mali's government it cannot let calls for the restoration of democracy get lost in the rush to battle jihadist fighters.

With France ramping up a military operation to hold back advancing Islamist extremists and the first parts of a West African force now expected to arrive within days, the attention of officials in Bamako, Mali's capital, is concentrated on the fight to reclaim the country's north.

But Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird on Monday tasked Canadian ambassador to Mali Louis de Lorimier to formally register Canadian concerns that the country restore democracy. A military coup last March removed then-president Amadou Touré, and a transitional government effectively controlled by the coup organizers has remained in control.

"We want to encourage them not to lose sight of, or minimize, the need for Mali to return to democratic and constitutional rule," Mr. Baird's spokesman, Rick Roth, said in an e-mail. "This means holding elections that are free and fair at the earliest practical opportunity."

Mr. de Lorimier was tasked with conducting a formal "demarche" – an official diplomatic registering of concern – to underline Ottawa's reminder that Mali must not let the restoration of democracy slide.

The U.S. had long pushed for a road map to those elections to be agreed before an international military intervention. While Washington continues to call for Mali's government to plan for the restoration of democracy, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland, speaking to reporters on Monday, suggested the April-vote schedule might now be affected by war.

Mali's transitional government is supposed to organize elections in April – but even the western nations that have been pressing them to restore legitimacy have begun to view that timetable as unrealistic. The prospect of organizing a vote in the northern towns now under the control of Islamist organizations Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, for example, seems remote.

But many western governments view the restoration of a legitimate government in Bamako as a key step to a lasting settlement that will keep the threat of jihadist insurgents at bay.

The rebellion in Mali's north initially began as an uprising of Tuaregs in the country's north, who allied themselves with Islamist extremists linked to al-Qaeda, including foreign fighters. But the so-called Tuareg nationalists were sidelined by more extreme factions in July. Striking a settlement with Tuareg groups to turn against the jihadists is seen by many in the west as key to lasting peace in the north.

But Tuareg groups will be reluctant to strike a deal with an illegitimate, unstable government whose lease on life is expected to be short. Malian governments have struck political deals with the country's Tuaregs in the past, only to renege on their terms.