Prime Minister Stephen Harper has opened the door to a long-term Canadian military presence in Mali, while explicitly refusing any combat role in the African country.
Mr. Harper said a Canadian transport plane will remain active as part of the ongoing French-led military mission in Mali, and that his government is contemplating a further involvement in an eventual UN-led mission in the country.
"In terms of our longer-term engagement, I think you know well we are not looking to have a combat, military mission there," Mr. Harper told reporters on Thursday, pointing out that the C-17 aircraft will remain in use "as long as we feel there is a need."
Mr. Harper said that Canada will "be providing development and humanitarian assistance," while adding that discussions are ongoing in terms of a further Canadian involvement. The UN has been contemplating setting up a 10,000-strong, heavily-armed force in the former French colony before presidential and legislative elections in July.
"The details of what our long-term engagement may be are still the subject of discussions that we are having among our ministerial colleagues, our caucus and, as well, we're obviously talking to the opposition parties on their preferences," he said.
The NDP said that there have not been any recent discussions between the Conservative government and the Official Opposition on the matter of Mali, stating that Leader Thomas Mulcair or foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar have not been consulted on the government's future options.
Regarding the use of the C-17, a government source added its use has been declining and that the mission will end in a matter of weeks, not months.
Mr. Harper made his comments during a joint news conference with his French counterpart, Jean-Marc Ayrault, in Ottawa, where he praised France's "leadership role in fighting the terrorist threat in northern Mali."
Mr. Ayrault said that France is pushing for a UN vote next month to approve peacekeepers for the West African country, adding that his government wants to get its troops out of Mali.
The proposed heavily armed rapid-reaction force, similar to the unit proposed for a UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, would be a departure from its typically more passive peacekeeper operations. In practical terms, UN diplomats say, troops in the rapid-response force would have more freedom to open fire without being required to wait until they are attacked first, a limitation usually placed on UN peacekeepers around the world.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is due to deliver a report to the Security Council with peacekeeping recommendations for Mali by the end of the month, and diplomats hope a vote can take place by mid-April.
The other major topic of discussion during Mr. Ayrault's visit to Ottawa were ongoing free-trade negotiations between Canada and the European Union. While the French government is not officially at the table, Mr. Ayrault confirmed that a Canada-EU deal would serve as a template for a subsequent deal with the United States.
Mr. Harper said he is hoping for a deal as soon as possible, but added that the Canadian government will not make compromises simply to obtain an agreement.
"Nothing is resolved until everything is resolved," he said.
With a report from Reuters