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Tuareg fighters of the Coordination of Movements of the Azawad are seen near Kidal, northern Mali, on Sept. 28, 2016.

AFP/Getty Images

The addition of Canadian helicopters and troops to the UN mission in Mali will greatly assist peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts and reinforce the international community’s commitment to help one of the world’s most vulnerable populations, says the UN’s Independent Expert on the West African country.

The peacekeepers from 50 countries who have been on the ground since 2013 are doing their best to protect civilians and humanitarian workers as they try to reach people in difficult situations, Suliman Baldo, a specialist in conflict resolution, said Tuesday in a telephone interview with The Globe and Mail.

The arrival of the Canadian forces “would be a reconfirmation of the commitment of the international community to support Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world, in a struggle to preserve its sovereignty, its integrity and the security of its population in the face of aggression from a cohort of terrorist groups,” said Mr. Boldo.

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The insurgents who have united under the banner of the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims are focusing on Mali because they see it as the weakest state in the Sarahan region, he said.

“They want to establish a presence and offer models of their Islamic caliphate,” said Mr. Boldo.

He emphasized that the international community has to share in the support of Mali.

Last year, the Netherlands pulled out the four Apache attack helicopters and three Chinook transport helicopters they wereoperating in the country. They were replaced by eight helicopters from Germany.

Mali is vast and is served by poor infrastructure, said Mr. Baldo. “Roads to the west and in the north and in the central part of the country are not passable part of the year. Therefore, helicopters for peacekeeping operations are an essential means of transport and also for intervention” when insurgents attack, he said.

The Canadian decision to send helicopters to support the UN mission will “help a lot in improving the operations and logistics for the peacekeeping operation,” he said.

The Dutch and the Germans have both had helicopter crashes in Mali. Two Dutch peacekeepers died in 2015 when their Apache helicopter made a forced landing during a military exercise. A German Airbus Tiger crashed in February as a result of incorrect settings on its autopilot, also leading to two deaths.

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“There are some threats due to atmospheric conditions in this part of Africa,” said Mr. Boldo. Mali is in the Sahara desert so there are strong sandstorms that reduce visibility.

But, he said, the terrorist groups target the ground operations of the Malian army and the international security forces, focusing on primary access roads, and have demonstrated no capacity to take down helicopters.

The terrorists are scattered over very large areas and their numbers are not large, said Mr. Boldo. They exercise their power over civilian populations by infiltrating communities and pressuring them with violence to adopt their version of Islam and by intimidating local representatives of the Malian government until they are forced to flee.

A peace accord that was signed in 2015 has, so far, had little to no effect on the security of the civilian population. In fact, the fighting has spread since the agreement was struck. But Mr. Boldo does not believe that the accord is dead or that peace cannot come to Mali.

“Of course, you cannot overcome terrorist groups just by mere military operations,” he said. “Addressing the root causes of the problem would require long-term interventions to address issues of poverty, of creating more opportunities for youth, of fighting the radicalization of youth by preachers and by groups that have extremist radical ideologies and so on.”

But the Malian government and the groups that support the agreement are committed to it, said Mr. Boldo.

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The support of the international community, including Canada, provides impetus for the government to act, he said. “I don’t believe the intervention will just be open-ended if the international partners apply that leverage in a very strategic way to make sure that the peace agreement is fully implemented within a reasonable time.”

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