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Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with French President Francois Hollande at the Palais de l'Elysee in Paris, France on Thursday, June 7, 2012Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

France's President, François Hollande, has personally asked Stephen Harper to extend Canada's contribution of a heavy-lift cargo plane for Mali, and to offer more transport help, testing Mr. Harper's efforts to set strict limits on Canada's military assistance.

The request, made in a direct leader-to-leader telephone call on Tuesday afternoon, comes as France is ramping up operations in an expanding war against Islamists in Mali's north.

On Wednesday, French troops launched their first ground assault against Islamist rebels after six days of air strikes.

Mr. Harper's government has insisted its commitment of military support is not a slippery slope to deeper involvement, offering one massive C-17 transport for one week. Now France is seeking a more open-ended extension and more air-transport help – as well as encouraging Canada to contribute cash for a West African force.

Mr. Harper, however, provided no immediate answer. "The two leaders agreed to be in touch over the course of the week," said Mr. Harper's communications director, Andrew MacDougall. "Canada's contribution remains one C-17 for one week."

The Harper government has been seeking, instead, to carve out a diplomatic push as its chief role, pressing, along with allies, for Mali to map a road to restoring democracy after a coup last March that toppled the elected government, and hinting it will offer assistance to the African nation's beleaguered neighbours.

The coup last March has been one of the reasons Mr. Harper has long shown reluctance to commit military help, as well as skepticism about whether Western assistance would work without effective Malian forces and heavy-lifting by troops from its African neighbours.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird met Tuesday with key envoys close to the conflict: the ambassadors from Mali, France and Ivory Coast, which now chairs the West African regional bloc ECOWAS, whose member nations are preparing a force of 3,300.

Afterward, Mr. Baird said the government will consider what it can do to provide help for Mali's neighbours, facing a flow of refugees and struggling to muster troops to fight. "We're certainly prepared to discuss … what we can do on humanitarian support, support for Mali's neighbours, diplomatic support or support for the restoration of democracy," Mr. Baird told The Globe and Mail.

Canadian diplomats have formally registered their concern with Mali's government that the war not be an excuse for failing to return the country to democratic, constitutional rule – a message co-ordinated with U.S. diplomats.

Several Western nations are concerned that the so-called "political track" may be lost in war. With Ottawa providing more than $100-million in aid per year before the March coup, some see Canada as one of the few countries with some pull with Mali. "It's the French, Americans and Canadians more than anyone else," one Western diplomat said.

Mr. Baird raised the Canadian call for the restoration of democracy Tuesday with Malian ambassador Ami Diallo Traoré, who said Mali wants to return to constitutional rule. But Mali also faces a dramatic threat, according to France's ambassador, Philippe Zeller, who was also at the meeting. Mr. Baird said later that returning the country to legitimate rule is key to "long-term stability," but also said the immediate threat is "a counterpoint, obviously."

Mr. Harper's long reluctance to commit hard military assistance for the Mali mission was coloured in part by the fact that it was led by a transitional government essentially controlled by the coup plotters, according to a senior government source. Justifying a military mission to the public, in a far-off African country, would be even harder when the good guys were dubious.

For months before France intervened directly, as plans for a West African force for Mali were being drawn up, French officials had approached Canada to consider making a contribution of trainers, logistical support and special forces.

Mr. Harper was reluctant. Though his government is concerned about security in the region, he doesn't see Mali itself as a key strategic interest for Canada, according to a government source.

And he was skeptical about the forces Canadians would be sent to help: Mali's army is weak and ECOWAS was moving slowly to muster troops for Mali. The Prime Minister had doubts Canadian assistance could work without effective local forces and Africans willing to do the heavy lifting.

France's intervention changed Mr. Harper's willingness to offer some military help, but not his direction. For a key ally, he was willing to provide some non-combat support – emphasizing it would not slide to deeper involvement.

On Saturday, the French embassy's defence attaché contacted Canadian defence officials, who, after weekend discussions, indicated Ottawa was willing to offer a giant C-17 strategic-lift plane. With that understanding, France's defence minister made a formal request to Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

Now, Mr. Hollande, who called with thanks, is asking for more – a longer tour for the C-17 and additional air transport – for a French mission with an unknown end date.

"We don't know the duration. We know the objectives," said Mr. Zeller, the French ambassador. "And in consequence, the maintenance of logistical assistance from all partners who can provide it, particularly air logistics, will be crucial for the pursuit of the operations."