THE CANADIAN PRESS -- OTTAWA - Parliament has formally extended Canada's military mission in Libya to the end of September as Ottawa endorsed the country's rebels as the true representatives of its people.
By an overwhelming 294-1 margin, MPs approved the extension Tuesday evening after an exhaustive day-long debate on Canada's involvement in the NATO-led, United Nations-sanctioned mission to protect civilians from dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird kicked off the debate by announcing a significant policy shift -- recognizing the National Transitional Council of Libya, the key rebel organization fighting Gadhafi. He also announced additional aid funds to assist victims of sexual violence.
After the vote, Baird told reporters that he planned to meet soon with a Canadian-based member of the council. He moved to dispel any apprehension about the council, saying it represents "the best hope" for the future of the Libyan people.
"Whatever happens, they couldn't be any worse than Col. Gadhafi," said Baird.
Canada joins France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in formally recognizing the council.
In March, the House of Commons unanimously approved a three-month commitment of seven fighter jets, a warship, patrol planes and aerial tankers to help enforce a no-fly zone and arm's embargo on Libya.
Tuesday's vote extends the mission after NATO approved a 90-day extension earlier this month.
"Our government will engage with the institutions and representatives of the NTC," Baird said. "I will be seeking a meeting with my counterparts on the NTC.
"We will identify members of the NTC responsible for domestic issues and propose meetings with their Canadian counterparts. We will also happily arrange meetings between NTC members and honourable members of this place."
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was the lone dissenter, saying she had concerns about "mission creep."
Paul Dewar, the NDP foreign affairs critic, urged more humanitarian assistance and called for greater efforts to investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes in Libya.
He also said the government must recognize that diplomacy is the key to solving the Libyan problem.
"This will not be a crisis that is solved by us, or by NATO, or by more bombing, but it will be solved by diplomatic pursuit, by humanitarian pursuit and to make sure that the UN is in the lead and is co-ordinating matters," he said.
Baird reaffirmed last month's G8 commitment that "at the political level ... Mr. Gadhafi must go."
In response to questions from the NDP Opposition, Baird said regime change is not part of the formal UN mandate that authorizes the military mission, but it is a key element of the long-term political solution.
"Col. Gadhafi seeks to remain in power by committing crimes against the people. He needs to be stopped and he needs held accountable. He is a clear and present threat both to his people and to the stability of the region, including the emerging and promising democracies of Tunisia and Egypt.
"I would note that Canada's end game is shared by our G8 partners, as expressed at Deauville earlier this month."
Critics say the goal of the three-month old bombardment has shifted into a mission to kill Gadhafi. NATO warplanes have recently stepped up attacks on the capital, Tripoli, where Gadhafi is believed to be hiding.
"Pardon me if I assume the mission is to get rid of Gadhafi," said NDP defence critic Jack Harris.
Gadhafi's forces continued to dig in and continue their push back into rebel-held areas in the eastern part of Libya.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay said pressure must be maintained on the Gadhafi regime to ensure that civilians are protected from further attacks.
"Strikes on his command-and-control posts must and will continue."
MacKay said withdrawing Canada's military support would send the wrong signal and have "dire consequences" for Libyan civilians.
Canada is also contributing $2-million in new humanitarian assistance to help embattled civilians in Libya. That brings Canada's total contribution to $10.6-million.
Some of the money will support people subjected to sexual violence as a weapon of war.
"The government remains committed to being a humanitarian partner in Libya," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said. Delivering aid to parts of Libya remains a challenge but Canada is committed to working with its international partners, he added.
"We have been particularly disgusted by abhorrent reports that Gadhafi and his thugs are using torture and sexual violence as weapons against the Libyan population," Baird said.
"Such actions are international crimes and may be war crimes or crimes against humanity. Canada calls for a full and impartial investigation of these allegations so that the perpetrators can be brought to justice."
Mike Blanchfield, the Canadian Press