Canada's air transport mission to support French and African military efforts in Mali has been extended to Feb. 15, a statement released by the Harper government this afternoon says.
At last week's announcement that one C-17 Globemaster transport plane would help with moving troops and equipment, Prime Minister Stephen Harper emphasized that the deployment was only for one week and the government would review its commitment after a few days.
By Thursday, however, the plane had been flying missions in and out of Mali's capital, Bamako, for one week, so a decision was expected imminently on what would come next. Forty Canadian Forces personnel are currently involved in the daily shuttle runs originating at military bases in France.
French and Malian ambassadors in Ottawa said last Thursday that France had requested an extension and suggested it would likely be granted.
Able to help French
"I would deem this quite important, " Defence Minister told host Hannah Thibedeau on CBC News Network's Power & Politics.
"It's always the timing. The critical piece here is that we were able to help the French bring soldiers and protective equipment, heavy armoured vehicles into Bamako to forward deploy further North where the fighting is occurring with the insurgents."
MacKay said that Canada had suspended aid to Mali due to concerns about human rights in that country, but that efforts were being looked at to provide assistance to the 400,000 people immersed in a humanitarian crisis there, without funds being funnelled necesssarily through the Mali government.
"Working through international partners and agencies who have better visibility on the ground is key, I think, to making sure the money gets to the people who need it," MacKay said.
MacKay's department issued a statement Wednesday saying Canada's latest flight, the sixth one between France and Bamako, had arrived back at Le Tube Air Force Base Tuesday evening.
"It delivered four vehicles earlier that day," the department said. "In total, Canada has carried 282,252 lbs [128,027 kg] of equipment to Bamako, Mali."
Travel warnings issued
"Canada is a committed partner in combating terrorism in all forms," a release from Foreign Affairs quoted Minister John Baird as saying. "We recognize the many challenges Mali and its neighbours are facing at the moment, and we are prepared to do our part for the people of the Sahel."
"Our government also continues to reflect on contributions we can make in other non-military areas," Baird added.
Late Thursday, the government issued an updated travel advisory for Mali, saying Canadian officials have reached out to registered Canadians in Mali and have urged them to leave.
As well, Canadians in Benghazi, Libya, were urged to leave immediately. "Terrorist attacks could occur at any time and could target areas frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers," Foreign Affairs said.
European countries also cautioned their citizens about a potential threat to westerners in Libya. While the country doesn't border directly on Mali, it has been the scene of recent strife, including an attack in September that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador.
Expected to consult House of Commons
On Wednesday, CBC News reported on one scenario said to be under consideration that could have included the contributions of not only the C-17 transport plane, but also a shorter range C-130 Hercules tactical cargo plane for ferrying troops and equipment for the conflict. Today's announcement does not mention a second plane.
A surge of African ground troops is heading into Mali following an earlier aerial bombing campaign led by the French military, as forces try to retake the northern half of the country from al-Qaeda-linked militants.
The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution Dec. 20 authorizing the deployment of an African-led International Support Mission in Mali. French planes began an air offensive on Jan. 11 after insurgents threatened to take over not only the north but areas in the south and around the capital as well.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has ruled out "direct" Canadian military involvement in the campaign, including combat or ground troops, suggesting that so far the request from Canada's allies has been for airlift support.
"I'm obviously talking to my colleagues, and we're also in consultation with the opposition parties," Harper said Wednesday in Cambridge, Ont., where he was announcing federal funding for an auto-industry project.
"Anything we do, I'd like to see a broad Canadian consensus behind that. I do think it is important to help this mission. At the same time, I think we've been very clear, and I think this reflects Canadian opinion that, while we're prepared to help, we don't want to see a direct Canadian military mission to Mali.
"So we will continue to look at ways we can be helpful with a broad consensus in Parliament," Harper said.
Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair was demanding a debate before Canada deepened its involvement. The House of Commons returns Jan. 28.