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Canadian soldiers participate in a training exercise in Mali in the spring of 2011.USAfricom

The Canadian government is in the early stages of providing military training to Niger, a country struggling to cope with the spreading Islamic extremism afflicting neighbouring Mali and the region.

This comes as the conflict in Mali escalates. Alarmed by the rapidly growing power of Islamist extremist fighters, France has sent combat forces into the African country to reinforce the crumbling military resistance to the rebel advance.

The Harper government has publicly rejected a direct military mission in Mali – even in the face of demands from African leaders – but this assistance to Niger allows Canada to contribute to the campaign against the Islamic militants who have taken over a large swath of Mali's territory.

That's because the soldiers from Niger receiving Canadian instruction may very well find themselves fighting the al-Qaeda-linked rebels of Mali in the near future. Niger is expected to be one of the three biggest troop-contributing nations, along with Nigeria and Burkina Faso, in a UN-sponsored West African military intervention in Mali.

The Canadian government, which is normally quick to trumpet overseas military efforts, was surprisingly silent on its West African training plans in recent days, failing to mention them during a week of debate over whether Ottawa should contribute a military mission to Mali. It, however, answered questions on the matter Friday.

Canada's military involvement in Niger has already commenced. A heavy-lift C-17 transport plane is currently in Africa where it's delivering Special Operations personnel to Niger for preliminary training and preparation for Exercise Flintlock, an annual West African training exercise sponsored by the U.S. military.

The exercise, aimed at helped West African countries fight terrorism, will take place in Mauritania in February and March, the Canadian government says.

The Canadian contingent of defence personnel participating in Flintlock 13 will number fewer than 24.

They'll train the Niger Armed Forces 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 Exercise Flintlock.

Major Douglas MacNair, a spokesman for Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, said Canada will not train Malian forces. But, he noted, the U.S. war exercise will help stabilize the region.

"Flintlock involves the capacity building of several countries within the Sahel region. As Niger shares a border with Mali, strengthening the capacity of Nigerien Armed Forces contributes to regional security."

The annual Flintlock exercise takes place in different western African countries each year. Canada last participated in 2011. The 2012 exercise, which was supposed to take place in Mali, was cancelled because that country's army was busy responding to attacks from Tuareg separatists.

The French military intervention on Friday, a dramatic shift from earlier plans for an African-led force, was a sign of the world's growing fear that the Islamist rebels could topple Mali's weakened government and turn the country into a haven for terrorists.

In a sign of the desperate mood, Mali President Dioncounda Traore declared a national emergency on Friday and called on Canadian mining companies and other miners to contribute their trucks to the fight against the rebels.

Canadian companies are among the biggest investors in Mali. One of the largest mining companies in the country, Toronto-based Iamgold Corp., said it has not formally received a request for its vehicles so far. The company said it has temporarily closed its office in Mali and moved out some of its non-essential staff.

French air strikes against the rebels were believed to have begun on Friday in central Mali. "This operation will last as long as is necessary," French President François Hollande said in a terse televised statement in Paris.

"The very existence of the friendly state of Mali is at stake, as is the security of its people and that of our citizens."

French helicopter gunships and paratroopers are already supporting the counterattack against the estimated 1,200 Islamist rebels who have advanced into central Mali.

Reports on Friday night said the French-backed troops may have driven the rebels out of Konna, a town they had captured from the army a day earlier.

In the earlier plan for an African-led military intervention force, Europe would have provided only 250 military trainers. But the African force was unlikely to be ready until September, and the rapid deterioration of Mali's resistance to the rebels triggered an abrupt change in France's policy.

Mr. Traore said the national state of emergency would continue for 10 days and could be renewed. He called for a "general mobilization" of all citizens against the rebels.

The United States said it was "very closely" consulting with France and monitoring the military situation.

"We have noted that the government of Mali has asked for support, and we share the French goal of denying terrorists a safe haven in the region," a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council told Agence France-Presse.

French diplomats are arguing that the military intervention is authorized by a resolution of the United Nations Security Council last month, which called on all nations to support Mali. But it means an abandonment of the preferred idea of having African control of the intervention.

France's military intervention may have prevented the Islamist fighters from capturing two crucial towns in central Mali, Mopti and Sevare, where military bases and a strategic airport are located. Until the French intervention, the rebels were feared to be as close as 20 kilometres from the two towns.

France urged its 6,000 citizens in Mali to leave the country as soon as possible. Britain issued a similar warning to its own citizens in the country.

France's military operation is complicated by the seven French hostages who are currently being held by Islamist radical groups in the region. The rebels could try to use the French hostages as human shields. A spokesman for one of the Islamist rebel groups, which has links to al-Qaeda, condemned France's intervention and threatened to kill the hostages.

"The situation has deteriorated seriously in the last few days," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told a news conference on Friday.

"The rebels decided to move south with the apparent goal of taking over all of Mali to install a terrorist state. We must stop the rebels' offensive, otherwise the whole of Mali will fall into their hands, creating a threat for Africa and even for Europe."

Separately, Friday, the Canadian government strengthened its warning against visiting Mali. The Department of Foreign Affairs is now advising Canadians "against all travel" there and warning any remaining in all but one region of the country to "leave immediately."

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