08/07/2012 02:00 EDT | Updated 10/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Ottawa pledges $10M to Africa's Sahel region, vows to match public donations

TORONTO - The federal government is calling on Canadians to join in offering financial aid to a group of West African countries struggling with famine, violence and political upheaval.

Ottawa has established a relief fund for the troubled Sahel region, International Co-Operation Minister Julian Fantino announced on Tuesday, adding Canadians themselves will dictate how much money comes out of the federal coffers.

The government will match Canadians' donations to registered charities supporting the Sahel region between Aug. 7 and Sept. 30, Fantino said. Ottawa has already made an initial $10 million contribution to the matching fund.

"Right now, millions of women, men and children in the Sahel are suffering from hunger and severe malnutrition," Fantino said in a statement. "This is absolutely unacceptable. With generosity from Canadians, we can do more to respond to this crisis and support people in dire need."

The nine countries in the Sahel region have been contending with increasingly desperate conditions as political tensions escalate in Mali. A coup in the country's north has plunged the area into chaos as Islamist and other rebels fight for control of the territory.

The United Nations said last week that the political unrest has sent residents fleeing from the rule of rebel factions, some of whom have begun imposing harsh Islamic laws in the territories they hold.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said 260,000 Malian refugees have fled for neighbouring Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, which have kept their borders open and shared their food supplies despite the dire hunger crisis they face within their own nations. Some 200,000 people also have been displaced within Mali, facing dire conditions.

Along with those four countries, Ottawa has identified Chad, Senegal, Gambia and northern Cameroon as being most severely impacted by the escalating crisis.

The UN humanitarian office has previously said 18 million people already face severe hunger and malnutrition in the Sahel region.

One of the leading charities involved in providing relief to the troubled region applauded the federal government's latest aid initiative.

Dave Toycen, chief executive of World Vision Canada, said the matching fund is a key first step to helping families coping with starvation and displacement. Canadians themselves have proven their willingness to offer relief to those in need, he added.

"In times of crisis, Canadians have shown that they are among the most generous people in the world, despite difficult economic circumstances here at home," Toycen said. "I am confident they will once again rise to the challenge and show the world that Canada will always be a nation of caring, generous and compassionate people."

In 2010, a similar initiative in Ottawa saw the federal government shell out $220 million to equal the donations that poured in from Canadians to provide relief to Haiti in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake.

_ With files from the Associated Press