Canada will deploy helicopters and troops – including female soldiers – to Mali in support of an ongoing UN peacekeeping mission, the government has announced.
Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan told reporters that Canada would deploy two Chinook transport helicopters and four Griffon attack helicopters to provide armed escort and protection in the fight against Islamist militants in Mali.
The 12-month deployment will also include an infantry unit and military trainers.
A date for Canada’s first deployment in Africa since its troubled mission to Rwanda in 1994 and the exact number of troops that will be sent have yet to be decided.
The foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, said the unit heading to Mali would include female soldiers.
“One of our priorities is to increase women’s participation in peacekeeping,” she said.
The announcement is less ambitious than the Liberal government of the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, had initially planned. Shortly after coming to power in late 2015, Ottawa had indicated it would send up to 600 troops to Mali.
Ministers later put the plans on hold amid fears of casualties, angering allies who said they felt let down, and prompting some to speculate the delay could hurt Canada’s bid for a non-permanent seat at the UN security council.
In recent months, jihadists have ramped up their activities in central Mali, targeting domestic and foreign forces in outbreaks of violence once confined to the country’s north.
Four United Nations peacekeepers were killed and four wounded in late February when a mine exploded under their vehicle in central Mali.
The peacekeeping mission, known by the acronym Minusma, currently has 12,000 military personnel and 1,900 police.
They have been deployed in Mali since 2013 to counter the jihadist insurgency and general lawlessness.
The Canadians, according to Sajjan, will conduct reconnaissance, facilitate medical evacuations for the 57 UN partner nations already on the ground in Mali, and help plan missions in the country.
James Bezan, defence spokesman for the official opposition Conservative party, accused the Liberals of sending troops to a highly dangerous country for partisan promises.
“This is about Justin Trudeau’s selfish political ambition to win a seat on the UN security council, and he is using our troops as political pawns,” Bezan told reporters.
Canada is running for one of the council’s 10 non-permanent seats in an election that will take place in 2020.