01/15/2013 09:44 EST | Updated 03/17/2013 05:12 EDT

Canadian C-17 Set To Join Allied Efforts En Route To Mali

The departure of a Canadian Forces C-17 transport plane with 35 personnel headed to support the French mission in Mali was delayed by mechanical problems today, but it has now left CFB Trenton.

The aircraft was expected to take off at around 8 a.m. ET, but due to a generator problem the crew has had to switch to a different C-17.

A second plane is now en route to a French military base northwest of Marseilles to pick up troops and equipment destined for Mali's capital, Bamako.

The French military is leading an assault against al-Qaeda-linked rebel fighters in Mali who took over an area in the country's north larger than the size of France, following a coup last March.

"This is a logistics operation, intended to support French operations," Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay said on the tarmac before the C-17's departure Tuesday morning. "I spoke yesterday with the French defence minister [Jean-Yves Le Drian] to indicate that Canada would indeed support their efforts there."

Diplomatic scolding in Bamako

In a separate move, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird's office announced late Tuesday morning that Canada's ambassador to Mali, Louis de Lormier, was asked to deliver an official demarche – a form of diplomatic protest – to the Malian government.

"We want to encourage them not to lose sight of, or minimize, the need for Mali to return to democratic and constitutional rule," said Baird's spokesman, Rick Roth, in an email. "This means holding elections that are free and fair at the earliest practical opportunity."

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

Late Monday morning, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Canada's contribution of the heavy-lift aircraft to assist its allies for one week.

The announcement followed a tweet from the Malian president on Sunday that previewed that not only the U.S. and the U.K. were announcing support for the French-led campaign, but also Canada – which had not yet announced any material contribution beyond offering its verbal support.

Both Harper and MacKay said Canada was contributing the transport aircraft based on a specific request from France for this type of assistance. Canadian personnel are not expected to be directly involved in any combat, as fighting is not currently centred on Mali's capital.

On Tuesday, MacKay noted there is a shortage of this type of aircraft and praised Canadian Forces personnel from 429 Transport Squadron for preparing quickly for the departure of this C-17 from Canada.

International efforts ramp up

The British contribution also consists of two transport aircraft in a similar role to Canada's. MacKay said he was in the U.S. on Monday meeting with American military officials, who are "contemplating what level of support they can provide," which is not expected to include any ground troops but likely to include drones and other communications and logistical support.

The rebels behind the insurgency in Mali have imposed a brutal form of Islamic law in the north that threatens to spread, enabling terrorism elsewhere in Africa.

"It's a world away, but it's an indication of Canada's role within the global community," MacKay said Tuesday. "This is a region of the world right now that is deemed to be quite unstable.

"We have seen a deterioration of the security situation in Mali. Canada has a history of having supported Mali in the past. We have an obvious interest at stake of seeing stability and democracy return to that country," said the defence minister, also noting Canada's history of supporting France as a military ally.

Under the mandate of a United Nations Security Council resolution, several thousand troops from West African countries are expected to reinforce Mali's weakened military this week, as efforts to first contain and then defeat the insurgency escalate.

Robert Fowler, a former Canadian diplomat who in 2008 was kidnapped by al-Queda for 130 days in neighbouring Niger, thinks Canada can do more. Fowler says the group that snatched him and two others he was travelling with were members of al-Queda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQUIM) who want to create a fundamentalist Islamic state in Mali, and other parts of Africa.

Fowler, a former deputy minister of defence, who was in Africa as a UN special envoy to Niger, says Mali has the potential to become worse than Somalia, "a Darfur multiplied a hundred times."

"I think we can provide training, we can provided logistics, we can provide helicopters, we can provide fixed wing, we can provide intelligence and we can provide the services of our extremely skilled special forces to get this job done." Fowler told CBC News.

Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair has said he supports the government's decision to send a C-17 military transport plane to support French intervention in Mali. But Mulcair told Evan Solomon, host of CBC News Network's Power & Politics, Tuesday that any further action by Canada would have to be a decision made by Parliament.

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