Canada is sending frigate HMCS Charlottetown to the waters off Libya amid an international buildup of military forces in response to the violent internal crackdown by Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's regime.
The Halifax-based warship will depart its home port on Wednesday to assist in the evacuation of Canadians from Libya, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced during Tuesday's question period in the House of Commons.
Speaking to reporters outside the House after Harper's announcement, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said it would take six days for the vessel and its 240 Canadian Forces personnel to reach the region.
MacKay said the ship could have a role in enforcing any future sanctions — including a blockade — if such measures are approved by either the United Nations or NATO.
The CBC's James Cudmore reported the frigate could also be used as a launching platform for special forces missions. But the defence minister said he would not comment on special forces operations.
On Power & Politics with Evan Solomon, MacKay said there are some members of the Canadian Forces who are already on the ground in Malta embedded in the operations centre set up by the United Kingdom, but those 13 people and the personnel on the way to the region are only there to "facilitate the extraction of Canadians."
"There are no plans whatsoever at this point that involve Canadian soldiers taking military action," he said, adding that there are between 100 and 200 Canadians still in Libya. "Our focus is evacuating Canadians, getting them safely and quickly out of harm's way, [and] getting them out of the country."
Canadian flight refused permission to land in Tripoli
The deployment comes after a Canadian military transport plane was forced to abandon its mission to pick up Canadians in Libya on Tuesday after being refused permission to land at the country's main airport.
The C-130J Hercules transport was on its way to Tripoli International Airport from Malta but was reportedly turned back due to congestion on the tarmac, a military spokesman said.
"The reason for the denial is apparently due to a shortage of ramp space," said Maj. Andre Salloum, spokesman for Canadian Forces Expeditionary Command.
Canada now has two C-17 military cargo planes and two Hercules aircraft sitting on the tarmac in Malta and has sent a military reconnaissance team of 13 soldiers to the Mediterranean island country located just 300 kilometres north of the Libyan coastline.
Since Libyans began their revolt against Gadhafi's 41-year-old rule two weeks ago, his regime has launched the harshest suppression of protests in the Arab world, where authoritarian rulers are facing an unprecedented wave of uprisings.
After recent criticism of Canada's sluggish response to revolts in other North African countries, Canada has adopted a UN resolution and has already instituted some sanctions, including a freeze on Gadhafi's assets and a travel ban on him, his family and members of his regime.
Billions in Libyan assets frozen
Billions of Gadhafi's assets have already been frozen by Canada, the United States and European nations in response to the regime's crackdown, which has been blamed for the deaths of as many as 1,000 people, according to UN estimates.
A senior government source told CBC News on Tuesday that Ottawa has frozen $2.3 billion in Libyan assets at Canadian financial institutions so far.
On Tuesday, Harper spoke with Lawrence Gonzi, the prime minister of Malta, thanking him for hosting Canadian aircraft and personnel as part of the evacuation efforts.
Dimitri Soudas, the prime minister's spokesman, said the leaders also discussed the need for co-ordinated international relief efforts.
Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said Canada is doing the right thing by stationing equipment and personnel after delays in reacting to the crises in other North African countries, such as Egypt.
"It's not just a matter of what's happened, but a matter of also being able to understand that there are many, many other places in the Middle East and indeed around the world where change can happen very, very quickly," Rae said. "So I think we have to improve the kind of responses we've been able to make."
Rae said Canada should be quick to join an international humanitarian effort in the region.