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UN secretary general says Canadian peacekeepers entering Mali 'war zone' but downplays risks

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is trying to downplay the safety and security threats Canadian soldiers will face once they land on the ground in Mali.

'It is a dangerous environment … peacekeepers may be attacked,' Antonio Guterres tells CBC News

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is trying to downplay the safety and security threats Canadian soldiers will face once they land on the ground in Mali. (CBC)

When Canadian Forces arrive at the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali this summer, soldiers will be entering one of the most dangerous conflict zones in the world. 

But the new UN secretary general is trying to downplay the safety and security threats Canadians will face once they land on the ground. 

During an exclusive interview with CBC News at the G7 summit in Charlevoix, Que., Antonio Guterres acknowledged that Mali is a "war zone," adding that casualties are "possible" but not "inevitable." 

"Inevitable is not a word that is adequate. The word is possible," Guterres said. 

"Even in very peaceful environments, we have soldiers that die with car crashes, with diseases, so, the number of people dying for … causes not related to fighting is normally higher than those that come directly from, I would say, war incidents."

UN peacekeepers from Bangladesh arrive at the Niger Battalion Base in Ansongo, eastern Mali, in February 2015. (Marco Dormino/United Nations/Associated Press)

Since the United Nations operation launched in 2013, more than 160 peacekeepers have been killed in Mali. 

The Canadian government announced in March it would be sending as many as 250 troops to be part of that mission, while also supplying six helicopters. 

Those soldiers are expected to arrive in the west African nation this August; however, the details still need to be finalized. 

'It is a war zone indeed there'

Guterres met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Saturday during the G7 summit.

"It is a war zone indeed there, but, it's not for the peacekeepers to fight the war," the secretary general said. 

"It is a dangerous environment and … peacekeepers may be attacked, and it's important that we take all precautions to prevent that."

"Canadian peacekeepers are extremely welcome," Guterres said, adding that it is important for developed countries to provide more than just financial aid. 

Guterres, left, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are seen at the G7 summit in La Malbaie, Que., on Saturday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The UN envisions Canadian troops taking on a largely traditional peacekeeping role, despite the dramatic evolution in threats in these types of conflict zones. 

Guterres said Canadian peacekeepers will focus on the "protection of civilians, to make sure that civilians do not pay the price of the difficulties that exist in Mali."

"If we want to serve those that are more vulnerable, those that suffer more, then there are risks in it always."