01/15/2013 11:43 EST | Updated 03/17/2013 05:12 EDT

Canada calls in French, Mali envoys for talks on West African crisis

OTTAWA - Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird will host the ambassadors of France, Mali and West Africa's economic bloc for talks in Ottawa on Wednesday regarding the embattled region, The Canadian Press has learned.

Baird called the high-level meeting, set for Foreign Affairs headquarters, one day after dispatching Canada's ambassador to Mali to tell the country's military rulers to get on with the work of restoring democracy following their coup there last March.

Baird told Canadian envoy Louis de Lormier to inform Malian officials that the instability caused by the March 2012 coup allowed al-Qaida affiliated groups to take control of the country's north.

That diplomatic message will be delivered to Malian officials in the form of a demarche, or diplomatic note that is often used to convey displeasure to another country.

"The coup in March 2012 undermined Mali's progress as a democracy and provided Islamist extremists with a window that has had devastating consequences," says Baird's spokesman Rick Roth.

Baird will now host Malian Ambassador Traore Ami Diallo, French Ambassador Philippe Zeller and Cote d'Ivoire's envoy Goran Kouame. The latter country currently holds the rotating chair of the 16-country Economic Community of West African States, known as ECOWAS.

"This will be very much a listening session," said a source speaking on condition of anonymity.

The source described the talks as "part of our ongoing monitoring of the situation in Mali since the coup of last March" as well as the diplomatic efforts that Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada would be pursuing.

Zeller told The Canadian Press Tuesday night that France is happy with Canada's contribution, and he looks forward to providing an update on the situation on the ground.

"We have to assess the situation. I understand that's very useful for the Canadian authorities to exchange with countries directly involved in the present situation in Mali," said Zeller.

Harper said last week that Canada would pursue diplomatic and humanitarian options to help the people of Mali.

But he rejected a request by the visiting chair of the African Union to push NATO to help African countries in their fight against the insurgent group in the north.

Canada's only military contribution, a C-17 heavy-lift military transport, departed Canadian Forces Base Trenton, Ont., on Tuesday, bound for France. The plane will be loaded with French military personnel and hardware for transport to the Malian capital of Bamako.

Canada supplied the plane after a request from the French military, which is trying to stop the advance of the insurgents in the north.

Harper and Defence Minister Peter MacKay have stressed that none of the 35 Canadian military personnel on the airplane would be drawn into fighting with insurgents in Mali.

Canada's C-17 will join a steady stream of other military transports touching down on a short runway in Bamako to supply French forces after they prepare for a major offensive alongside African troops hoping to rout the Islamist forces from the north.

Two other C-17s, a Russian Antonov and a C-160 were among the planes that preceded Canada's to Mali on Tuesday to arm troops headed for combat against three insurgent groups.

France announced Tuesday it would triple the number of troops it is sending to Mali to 2,500 from 800.

French President Francois Hollande predicted early Tuesday that those troops, fighting with their African counterparts, would rout the insurgents within a week.

"We have one objective: To make sure that when we leave, when we end this intervention, there is security in Mali, legitimate leaders, an electoral process and the terrorists no longer threaten its territory," Hollande said during a stop in the United Arab Emirates.

Zeller said that as Mali's fourth largest aid provider before the coup, Canada will undoubtedly play a major role in the long-term recovery of the country.

"It's up to Canada, of course," he said. "It's not only a question of military intervention, but it's also a question of helping Mali to recover its sovereignty, integrity and capacity ... that means training, support, probably financial aid."

Canada wants Mali to hold free and fair elections as soon as possible to restore international confidence.

"We want to encourage them not to lose sight of, or minimize, the need for Mali to return to democratic and constitutional rule," said Roth.

"This means holding elections that are free and fair at the earliest practical opportunity."

Mali appeared to be a relatively stable West African country until last year's coup, which set off a chain of events that allowed a terrorist group to set up a base in the country's north.

"Canada supports the return of a government in Mali whose political legitimacy is achieved through free and fair elections as endorsed by the (UN) Security Council," said Roth.

"Any legitimate government of Mali must restore confidence of both the people of Mali, as well as the international community and strive towards political stability."

Some critics, including Robert Fowler, Canada's former ambassador to the UN and a former hostage of the North African terrorists, have strongly urged the government to get involved militarily to keep a terrorist group from gaining a foothold in an existing state.

They argue that Canada went to war in Afghanistan to prevent al-Qaida from doing just that, but are now standing back from an even greater problem in Mali.

The Canadian Forces are making contingency preparations in anticipation of a greater military role.

But so far the Harper government has not made any military commitment beyond the contribution of one non-combat aircraft.

"We have seen a deterioration of the security situation in Mali," MacKay said Tuesday.

"Canada has a history of having supported Mali in the past. We have an obvious interest at stake in seeing stability and democracy returned to that country."

MacKay said Canada also has a long-standing relationship with its NATO ally, France, and that it was answering its specific request to provide much-needed airlift.

MacKay said he told his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drain, in a telephone call Monday that Canada's commitment of the C-17 would be for one week.