Canada's first C-17 transport flight landed in Mali at about 5 a.m. ET Thursday, beginning daily shuttle runs between the French military base at Le Tubé and the troubled country's capital Bamako — a mission that France now is asking Canada to continue for longer than one week.
The first flight brought a French armoured vehicle, equipment and 900 kilograms of batteries to French forces combatting the al-Qaeda-linked insurgency in the north of the embattled West African country. Two hours later, the Canadian Forces aircraft returned to France to pick up more troops or equipment.
While the French military appreciates this logistical support, France's ambassador to Canada, Philippe Zeller, told CBC News Thursday that his country wants Canada to provide it for longer than the limited period Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced on Monday.
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French President François Hollande and Harper spoke by telephone yesterday. The brief information provided by the prime minister's office about the call didn't indicate that extending Canada's mission was part of the conversation, but Zeller says that's when the request was made.
"The need is now obvious, and I officially asked [Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird] to have [this] aircraft beyond [this week,]" Zeller tells CBC News, referring to his meeting later in the day with not only Baird but also the ambassadors from Mali and Ivory Coast to update everyone with the latest information.
How long does that mean? "As long as possible, and as long as needed of course, but after that, it's a question of experts to know exactly how long that will be," the French representative said, owing to the "fluid" situation in Mali.
Zeller said France respects Canada's decision not to participate in a combat role, and said France never asked it to contribute that way.
"Logistics is something essential and really invaluable in the present situation," Zeller told host Robyn Bresnahan on CBC Radio One's Ottawa Morning, noting that in the coming days hundreds more African troops as well as French troops and supplies need to move quickly into Bamako and beyond on shuttle missions like the one the Canadian C-17 just performed, and this support fits the French military's needs.
Threat 'to all the region'
Speaking on CBC News Network's Power and Politics with Evan Solomon on Wednesday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird seemed open to considering an extension. In the prime minister's initial announcement, he also suggested Canada's contribution could be reviewed after its initial week.
"Obviously, if France has other requests, we'll consider them in a thoughtful way, as you'd expect," Baird told Solomon.
Baird also said yesterday that Canada would be considering humanitarian assistance for Mali and other neighbouring countries "in the days to come."
Zeller said that information is now being shared regularly between French and Canadian officials as the conflict evolves, and that he gave Baird yesterday "all the elements and data for taking the decision."
Zeller also confirmed that no specific request for financial assistance has been made by France.
However, during Baird's meeting with ambassadors yesterday in Ottawa, Zeller says they did discuss the United Nations resolution passed last month that calls on UN member countries to financially support Malian and other inter-African troops who are meant to eventually lead the international fight against the rebel forces that now control Mali's north.
Nine-hundred Nigerian troops are arriving now as part of the first wave of African participation, joining French ground troops already doing battle with the insurgent forces.
"It's not a bilateral question," the French ambassador said, suggesting each country needs to consider the UN request on its own.
Zeller suggested the African troops need about 200 million Euros, or about $265 million, but that there was no specific demand of Canada for a particular share of this cost, other than the UN resolution's general plea.
Intervention followed urgent threat
The French ambassador explained how his country felt an urgent need to intervene last week after the terrorist threat escalated significantly.
"Clearly the attacks organized by the terrorists last week threatening south Mali and specifically the capital Bamako [are] not only a threat to Mali itself. It is really a threat to all the region, and that's the reason we are all concerned," Zeller told Heather Hiscox on CBC News Network.
- Map: Conflict in Mali
Earlier this week, Baird's office revealed that Canada had sent an official démarche, or diplomatic protest, to the Malian government for being insufficiently focused on returning its country to democratic government following the coup last spring that provided extremists with a "window that has had devastating consequences."
Harper's announcement on Monday about Canada's contribution was previewed on Twitter on Sunday in a tweet from the Malian president's account.
"There is no time for the diplomatic démarche," Zeller told CBC News Thursday, while not commenting further about whether Canada's protest was helpful under the current circumstances.
Zeller also suggested Thursday that the attack and hostage-taking at a natural gas plant in Algeria was part of the "fallout" of the terrorism in Africa that's behind the conflict in Mali.
"If there would be no French intervention Bamako would be already occupied by the terrorists today, so that's the first good news," the ambassador said.