OTTAWA - Canada's special forces are on the ground in Mali to help protect Canadian personnel who are already operating in the troubled African country, say sources within the Department of National Defence.
Few other details were immediately available, although the Department of Foreign Affairs went to lengths to spell out that the presence of special forces soldiers does not signal an involvement in combat.
"We have been clear; there will be no mission in Mali," Rick Roth, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, said in a statement.
"Steps have been taken to ensure our mission and Canadian personnel are protected. We cannot comment on security specifics."
Story continues after slideshow.
Mali is a vast, landlocked nation that straddles the Sahara Desert and whose borders touch Algeria to the north and Ivory Coast to the south, linking North Africa with sub-Saharan Africa. Mali also borders Senegal, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Guinea. Mali's north is currently under the rule of radical Islamists, whereas the weak central government is in the country's south. The current fighting between French forces and the Islamists is taking place in the middle of the country in an effort to keep the militants from spreading further south toward the seat of power. <em>Fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard during the handover of a Swiss female hostage for transport by helicopter to neighboring Burkina Faso, at a designated rendezvous point in the desert outside Timbuktu, Mali Tuesday, April 24, 2012. Two main groups now appear to be competing to govern northern Mali: Ansar Dine, which wants to see Sharia law brought to Mali, and separatist rebels who already have declared an independent state. (AP Photo)</em>
Mali is home to some 15.8 million people, about 1.62 million of whom live in the capital of Bamako. Here, men and women sometimes ride three to a motorcycle in a city where bikes have their own lanes on the bridges connecting Bamako, divided by the Niger River. Mali's population reflects a rich diversity of cultures including the Bambara, the Malinke and the Peul. The country's north is also home to Arabs and the Tuaregs, who have led a number of rebellions against the central government over the years. <em>Malian refugees walk on December 7, 2012 in the Goudebou refugee camp, some 20 kms from the northwestern Bukinabe city of Dori. (AHMED OUOBA/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Mali is world-famous for its musicians, including the late Ali Farka Toure, as well as global exports Salif Keita, Amadou and Mariam, and Oumou Sangare. Before a spate of kidnappings carried out by al-Qaida's North Africa branch, the fabled city of Timbuktu was a popular tourist destination and the country hosted an annual music event called Festival in the Desert. Westerners also flocked to the stunning mud mosque of Djenne and the region known as Dogon Country, where guides bring people from village to village in a community long studied by anthropologists. <em>Malian musician Vieux Farka Toure, son of the legendary Ali Farka Toure, performs on December 15, 2012 at the French Institute in Libreville. (ERIC BEAUDENON/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Mali is 90 percent Muslim, and the call to prayer regularly echoes across communities where prayer mats and beads are sold on the streets. The northern city of Timbuktu is a historically significant site of Islamic learning and today the city still has some 20,000-catalogued manuscripts dating as far back as the 12th century. The Islam followed by Malians for centuries is a moderate form, though extremists began implementing a strict form of Islamic law known as Shariah last year across the north when they took over the cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. <em>A Malian refugee sits on December 7, 2012 in the Goudebou refugee camp, some 20 kms from the northwestern Bukinabe city of Dori. (OUOBA/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
The Islamists have provoked international outcry by razing historic tombs and attacking the gate of a 600-year-old mosque in Timbuktu. They also have carried out public executions and amputations, as well as whippings for infractions ranging from possessing cigarettes to women going out without headscarves. Many women in southern Mali work outside the home and do not wear the veil, though polygamy is still common throughout the country. <em>Fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard during the handover of a Swiss female hostage for transport by helicopter to neighboring Burkina Faso, at a designated rendezvous point in the desert outside Timbuktu, Mali Tuesday, April 24, 2012. (AP Photo)</em>
Analysts worry that the al-Qaida-linked militants in Mali's north are using the vast, desolate region outside government control to prepare for attacks outside Mali's borders. Given the country's historical ties to France, the former colonizer, many Malians pass back and forth between the two countries. <em>Caption: Malian soldiers drive in the direction of Diabaly, on the road near Markala, approximately 40 km outside Segou in central Mali, Monday, Jan. 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Harouna Traore)</em>
Many Malians are subsistence farmers, raising millet, sorghum, rice and corn. However, the country's third-largest export after cotton and livestock is gold. <em>Caption: In this May 17, 2010 file photo, a boy in Sokolo, Mali rides a donkey cart. (AP Photo/ Martin Vogl, File)</em>
Mali slid into dictatorship after gaining independence from France in 1960, but then a 1991 coup led to elections the next year. Mali's then-president stepped down after the maximum two-term limit and Amadou Toumani Toure, known as ATT, was peacefully elected in 2002. <em>Caption: In this Jan. 11, 2012 file photo, Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure inspects an honor guard during a ceremonial reception at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Pankaj Nangia, File)</em>
Toure was just months away from the end of his term when mutinous soldiers overthrew him in a coup in March 2012. The coup leader nominally handed over power to a weak, interim civilian government but is widely believed to still be controlling the country. The turmoil has left Mali's military in disarray, raising questions about how helpful Malian soldiers can be during the French-led intervention. <em>Caption: Wives of the Red Beret, a military unit which was in charge of protecting former Malian president Amadou Toumani Toure, hold signs reading '' Peace in Mali'' as they march in the streets of Bamako on July 16, 2012 to demand their husbands' release and the ''truth'' to be told on ''disappearances''. (HABIBOU KOUYATE/AFP/GettyImages)</em>
Mali remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and is estimated to have the second-highest infant mortality rate, with only Afghanistan higher. Life expectancy is a mere 53 years, and only 20 percent of women can read and write. Malian women on average have about six children each, and it is not uncommon for children to accompany their parents into the fields to work at a young age or to be involved in the country's mining industry. <em>Caption: In this Monday, April 30, 2012 photo, Mariam Orgho, 3, looks at her mother, Coumba Seck, sister-in-law of Samba Bayla. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)</em>
Canadian Forces crews have been piloting and supporting Canada's C-17 heavy-lift transport as it moves military equipment in support of French troops.
That mission, which was originally only supposed to last a week, is now scheduled to continue until Feb. 15.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Monday that any further role for Canada would require consultation with parliamentarians.
"We are providing technical assistance to French and other military forces who are there. We have committed heavy-lift aircraft to that engagement, which is being done under a United Nations mandate," Harper told the House of Commons in response to a question from NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.
"Of course, through this chamber and through committees, we will be consulting with parliamentarians on any further steps that need to be taken."
There had been speculation that the government would provide a smaller, C-130J Hercules transport to carry African troops into Mali, where forces are fighting to retake the northern half of the country from al-Qaida-linked militants.
The French had asked Canada to take on that role, but a number of other nations, including the United States and Britain, have kicked in air transports.
Harper has repeatedly ruled out "direct'' Canadian military involvement in the campaign, which began on Jan. 10 with the arrival of as many as 2,500 French troops to defend Bamako, the capital.
However, Harper has consulted opposition parties in order to build a political consensus about whether there should be further support and how that might play out.
Baird, meanwhile, has sought to reassure allies that Canada appreciates fully the danger posed by having a branch of al-Qaida occupying territory and training jihadists in North Africa.
The Harper government has been under pressure from the African Union — and, perhaps more importantly, from countries bordering Mali that are plagued by Islamic insurgencies of their own — to take more decisive military action.
Mali, once one of the most stable democracies in Africa, has spiralled out of control since a group of junior army officers staged a coup in March 2012. That prompted international condemnation and led the Harper government to suspend humanitarian programs.
Aid is flowing again, but it is directed through international agencies and non-governmental organizations.
The chaos that followed the coup allowed three different, loosely allied hard-line Islamic groups — all of them affiliated with al-Qaida — to seize the northern half of the country.
The interim government in Bamako had been negotiating with some of the rebels when talks broke down in December. That was followed quickly by the United Nations authorizing a 3,300-member African intervention force to oust the guerrillas.
Before the force could be assembled, the militants attacked, prompting the French to dispatch its own intervention force.