A Canadian C-17 transport plane has begun 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.
Mali's ambassador to Canada, Traoré Ami Diallo, has told Radio-Canada that she expects the mission to be extended.
The first flight landed at 5 a.m. ET Thursday and 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.
French President François Hollande and Harper spoke by telephone Wednesday. 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 told CBC News, referring to his meeting Wednesday with Baird and the ambassadors from Mali and Ivory Coast.
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.
On Monday, Harper said Canada would "after a few days, analyze how [the mission] is going and talk with our allies," but he emphasized that "this is intended to be of a short duration."
Malian ambassador thinks Canada said 'yes'
Diallo, however, speaking to Radio-Canada in French on Thursday afternoon said that while discussions between all the countries continue, she believed Canada would agree to the French request for more of the transport plane's time.
"One thing is clear," the Mali ambassador said. "I can tell it to you. I don't need confirmation from M. Baird. It's done, the deadline will be extended."
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Zeller told CBC News earlier that the Canadian government was meeting Thursday to consider its contribution in Mali. But both the foreign affairs minister's office and the prime minister's office suggested that he was mistaken, and no cabinet meeting was scheduled.
"Canada decides where Canadian assets are deployed and for how long," said Jay Paxton, a spokesman for Defence Minister Peter MacKay. "The envoy does not speak for Canada. No decision on extension has been taken."
Speaking before his caucus meeting on Parliament Hill, NDP leader Tom Mulcair repeated his comments from earlier this week that any expansion of Canada's mission to Mali should be debated in Parliament.
The House of Commons resumes sitting Jan.28.
Threat 'to all the region'
Speaking on CBC News Network's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon on Wednesday, 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 Wednesday 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 "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, Zeller says Baird and the ambassadors 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 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.