03/14/2013 10:55 EDT | Updated 05/14/2013 05:12 EDT

Harper: Canada Pondering Contribution To Proposed UN Mali Mission

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper is leaning towards development assistance for Mali rather than a further military contribution as he consults with cabinet and opposition parties on Canada's next steps, says a senior aide.

Harper faces a decision in the coming months on a further military contribution because France is pushing for a possible United Nations peacekeeping mission for Mali so its forces can be brought home.

Harper said Thursday during a press conference with the visiting French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault that Canada's contribution to the Mali military mission, a C-17 military transport, "will remain there as long as we feel there is a need."

Afterwards, a senior aide to Harper, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the file publicly, said the contribution of the C-17 and its support personnel would be limited to "weeks, not months."

Harper does not want to see Canadian peacekeepers deployed to Mali and is more interest in looking at the option of humanitarian assistance and development, the aide said.

Harper again stressed Thursday — as he has repeatedly throughout the Mali crisis — that Canada is not interested in sending combat troops to the West African country.

"We will certainly be providing development and humanitarian assistance," Harper said.

"But the details in terms of what our long-term engagement may be are still the subject of discussions that we are having with our ministerial colleagues, our caucus, and as well, obviously we're talking to the opposition parties on their preferences as well."

Ayrault said France is pushing for a UN vote next month to approve peacekeepers for the West African country.

He said France wants its troops out of Mali and wants peacekeepers to take over from French and African forces currently fighting Islamic extremists.

He also thanked Canada for sending the C-17 military transport plane to support that campaign.

"Canada was very spontaneous, not only politically but also logistically," he said.

"The C-17 plane that you lent the French forces allowed us to move troops quickly as well as provide good logistical support in very favourable conditions and to provide support to other countries too."

Standing next to Ayrault at a Parliament Hill news conference, Harper welcomed France's military efforts to dislodge al-Qaida linked terrorists from Mali's north.

"Let me express our tremendous admiration for France in taking the leadership role in fighting the terrorist threat in northern Mali," Harper said.

"This is a tremendous demonstration of the leadership of France and the importance of France in the world."

France answered an emergency call from Mali, its former colony, in January, after the militants claimed control of the country's northern half following a military coup that destabilized the country.

The al-Qaida affiliates had taken control of a chunk of Africa roughly the size of France, stoking fears that West Africa would become a terrorist haven.

Ayrault said France had to intervene quickly because the northern-based militants were mounting a major offensive on Mali's south, and "the whole thing would have been over. The jihadists would have kept moving and Mali's integrity, which is a fundamental objective, would no longer have existed."

French forces are still fighting and are not yet ready to withdraw.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told a French radio station on Thursday that he hopes that "we will have a decision in the United Nations to put in place peacekeepers" in April.

Fabius and Ayrault stressed the importance of stabilizing Mali's weak government and army and holding elections in July.

Canada has also pushed Mali to regain control of its democratic institutions.

"The entire region's security is at stake," Ayrault said. "And, in fact, our own security is at risk as well.

"Not only France or Europe, but all democracies. This is why we can act together."

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