Canadian special forces are on the ground inside the troubled West African country of Mali to protect Canadian assets there, CBC News has learned.
The special forces are not there to train Malian troops — and they are not involved in any combat role, as the government has repeatedly stressed and Prime Minister Stephen Harper repeated again Monday in the House of Commons.
The Department of National Defence would not confirm or deny the special forces are in Mali due to issues of security of personnel.
But a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs told CBC News, "Steps have been taken to ensure our mission and Canadian personnel are protected."
Evan Solomon, host of CBC News Network's Power & Politics, reports the special forces on the ground are protecting Canadian assets such as the Canadian Embassy in the capital Bamako, according to sources.
The forces are not related to Canadian Forces crews who have been piloting and supporting Canadian C-17 transport planes in support of French troops since Jan. 18. That mission was extended last week until Feb. 15.
It is not known how many special forces are on the ground in Mali, what are their rules of engagements and what assets they are protecting.
During their training mission in Niger, Canadian special forces learned from their training partners about fighting in a specific region of Niger close to the border with Mali.
Maj. Doug MacNair, a spokesman for Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, said that “this information was reported to Canadian Special Operations Forces Command headquarters, and since the passage of such information can serve to minimize both civilian and allied force casualties, the information was relayed to France.”
The Canadians were worried apparently that if the fighting spread they might be mistaken as targets — a source said passing the information to the French was simply "prudent."
Opposition NDP Leader Tom Mulcair told Solomon that if the special forces are protecting Canadians, the embassy and embassy staff, that is "simply normal protection" and not military involvement.
Mulcair pointed to the need to avoid a situation such as that in Benghazi, Libya, last summer, when the American ambassador and others were killed during an attack on the U.S. Consulate there.
"We would never want to see something like that — we'd want to have proper protection for Canadian personnel at the embassy.
"We're simply talking about protecting people in the embassy," Mulcair said.
Parliament will be consulted: Harper
But Mulcair repeated his position that Parliament be consulted before Canada makes any military or combat commitment beyond the C-17 missions.
In response to a question from Mulcair earlier Monday, Harper confirmed Parliament will be consulted on Canada's next steps, but didn't provide any additional details about either military assistance or humanitarian funding Canada may be considering.
"We will not undertake a Canadian combat mission in Mali," Harper told the Commons, reiterating his government's message over the past two weeks.
"We will through this chamber and through committees … be consulting with Parliament on any further steps that need to be taken," the prime minister told MPs in the first Commons sitting after MPs' winter break.
Fantino to attend Mali talks
International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino is heading to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for a high-level international meeting on the conflict in Mali.
A release from Fantino's office Monday billed the talks as addressing "the financial, logistical and capacity building needs of both the Malian forces and the African-led International Support Mission in Mali."
Asked what he wanted to see from Fantino's attendance at the conference, Mulcair told Solomon that Mali is one of the countries where Canada had been engaged historically, and lamented what he said was the Conservatives' decision to withdraw from Africa recently. He called the government's decision to support French forces in Mali "the right thing to do."
Canada suspended its international development assistance to Mali following a coup in the country last spring, but it has provided humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations affected by the conflict.
Insurgents affiliated with al-Qaeda now control the country's north. The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution in December authorizing an African-led mission to attempt to restore order in the country and prevent the country's capital, Bamako, from falling to the rebel groups.
The French military intervened earlier this month, with first an aerial bombing campaign and then ground troops in support of the African troops now mobilizing in Mali.