The Canadian Forces will be part of NATO's mission over Libya as long as it continues, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday in Paris.
Harper was in France to meet with other world leaders and the leaders of Libya's National Transitional Council to discuss what comes next in the country, and what they will need to rebuild and move to democratic elections in about 18 months.
Canada joined the NATO mission in March and has extended it once already to Sept. 27. Conservative MPs have until this week said it was too early to decide what help would be necessary after the extended mandate ran out.
"Canada will be a part of the military mission until it reaches its conclusion," Harper said. "And as you know, while considerable progress has been made, particularly in the past couple of weeks, we're not at that point. And we will stay and make sure the job is finished so that the transition can be as harmonious and complete as possible."
British Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday that NATO and its allies would continue their operations "for as long as we are needed to protect civilian life."
Libya's top diplomat in the U.S., Ali Aujali, told CBC's Evan Solomon that his interpretation of Harper's remarks is that Canada is prepared to continue its mission past Sept. 27 if necessary.
"We need the military support of Canada and the NATO countries until the [NTC] is satisfied that things on the ground are under control [and] Gadhafi is no more a threat to the Libyan people," Aujali said.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird hinted Tuesday that the door is open for Canada to extend its involvement in Libya beyond Sept. 27.
The opposition NDP is opposed to extending the military mission and wants to see it debated in Parliament, although Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae says his party's support would depend on what form the mission would take.
Canada and its NATO allies will be having discussions over the coming weeks about what roles they will play, said Rae, and his party will await the results of those talks.
"We're certainly open to discussion," he said. "I think it's fair to say that from any perspective that I have heard, the Canadian military component in this conflict is winding down and it's the humanitarian and political effort that needs to gear up even more than it has," he said.
Canada joined the coalition of NATO countries for the UN-sanctioned air mission to protect civilians from Gadhafi's violent forces. About 650 Canadian Forces members, CF-18 fighter jets, and a warship are currently dedicated to the mission, along with other equipment.
Speaking in Ottawa Thursday, Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Walt Natynczyk said there are no Canadian special forces officers on the ground in Libya.
Canadian sanctions lifted
Harper also announced Canada is lifting its sanctions against Libya and urging the UN to lift its own far-reaching ones to unlock access to billions in assets around the world.
Dropping the Canadian sanctions means Canadian companies can now start doing business with Libyan companies that are not owned by the state, and the new embassy staff in Ottawa can access their Canadian bank accounts. The move unfreezes about $100 million of the estimated $2.3 billion in Libyan assets held in Canadian institutions, a Canadian official said.
Government officials can't say whether the assets were held by companies or people, nor whether the bulk of the assets was in properties or cash.
But the UN sanctions, which Canada implemented in March, go much further. Those sanctions froze the assets of deposed leader Moammar Gadhafi, some of his family members and some members of the regime. But they also blocked access to money by any institutions run by the regime, including the Central Bank of Libya and the Libyan National Oil Corporation.
Canada recognizes the NTC, the rebel group that led the uprising against Gadhafi, as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, but under the UN sanctions the NTC can't access any of the estimated $168 billion in Libyan assets around the world.
The Paris meeting came on the 42nd anniversary of the bloodless military coup that brought Gadhafi to power.
NTC leaders Mustafa Abdul-Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril were among 13 heads of state, 19 prime ministers, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and leaders of NATO, the European Union, African Union, Arab League, and the 57-member Organization of Islamic Co-operation at the closed-door meeting.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Cameron, two of the most vocal backers of the anti-Gadhafi forces, co-hosted.
The NTC presented a detailed list of requests so the countries making up the Libya Contact Group can start considering what comes next for the country. In remarks in Italy before heading to Paris, Harper said Canada and its allies don't intend to issue a prescription for Libya's future.
Harper met with Abdul-Jalil after the meetings concluded.
'Best of Canada's military tradition'
Before leaving for Paris, Harper visited the Canadian Forces at a NATO air force base in Trapani, Italy. He thanked the Canadians there for playing a key role in the air mission as Libyans sought to topple Gadhafi.
Canada, he said, played a part well out of proportion in the job of neutralizing Gadhafi.
"Without your commitment, your bravery and your actions, there would be no reason to meet later today," Harper told the personnel who were gathered in a hangar to hear from him. "Nothing to talk about, nothing to plan for, no hope to offer the Libyan people."
The UN had begun working on plans to deploy peacekeepers in Libya post-Gadhafi but the NTC has said it is opposed to the idea. The UN had secured commitments from two countries already to send peacekeeping troops. Canada is not one of those two nations.
Harper told the Canadian Forces that they have contributed to more freedom in Libya.
"Because you held the ring while Libyans fought their own fight with their oppressor, the Libyan people are now free to choose," he said. "This is the best of Canada's military tradition."
"As we look ahead, we presume no right to tell Libyans how they should govern themselves," Harper told the troops. "Nor do we have unrealistic expectations."
The NTC faces a formidable task as it works to rebuild Libya, Harper said, noting the fighting is likely not yet over.
Small pockets of the country remain loyal to Gadhafi, whose whereabouts are unknown, but interim leaders are eager to discuss transition.
Calls to release funds
Libya's chargé d'affaires, the country's top diplomat in Canada, told CBC News Wednesday that the NTC needs the frozen funds.
"The most important thing and the main issue for the meeting [Thursday] is to get release for the frozen funds. Because the most important issue [is] to get peace and security in Tripoli and in the surrounding area, and in order to achieve that, we need the money," said Abubaker Karmos.
"People need food, people have been without wages for almost five or six months, Tripoli without running water for the last five, six days, electricity, there's a shortage of fuel, shortage of medical supplies. So we really need the money to stabilize the main cities and we can take it from there."
France, hosting Thursday's Libya conference, received the UN go-ahead to unfreeze money from Gadhafi's regime held in French banks and give it to the rebels.
Rae held a news conference Thursday with members of the Canadian Libyan Council and they called on Harper to ask the UN to lift its sanctions.
Rae also said the Conservatives should be working more closely with the Libyan community in Canada to match its efforts. It has raised $4 million to help people in Libya and at Thursday's news conference, representatives were pushing for Canada to take a leading role in rebuilding the health-care sector in Libya.
The Liberal leader said his party supports the community's request for Canada's assistance in building a democracy in Libya and that while the NTC doesn't want peacekeeping troops, it has expressed interest in having police and security personnel there and Rae would support those efforts.
"That's an area in which we think Canada can be helpful and can be part of a broader international effort," said Rae.