HALIFAX — Canada's troops and helicopters are urgently needed to protect and ferry peacekeepers at risk of ambush from Islamist militant forces as they travel through war-torn Mali, a top United Nations official says.
Atul Khare, the under secretary general of the UN's department of field support, said he's looking for Canadian help during an interview at the Halifax International Security Forum Friday.
"I think the most important contributions currently would be devoted to Mali," he said after meeting with the Canadian and United Kingdom defence ministers.
He specified there is a shortage of both armed helicopters and military utility helicopters, adding "these challenges are quite critical and they need to be overcome."
Khare said he's also looking for Canada to help with combat logistical companies that escort military convoys as they make perilous journeys to the north of the West African nation.
"The logistical convoys ... are frequently ambushed and we face many challenges there," he said.
With a string of recent deaths along the roadways of the nation, Khare said he's hoping Canada makes its decision quickly.
"The needs were yesterday. We are searching for them today because we have not yet fulfilled those needs," he said.
The United Nations established an operation in Mali called MINUSMA in April 2013 after French and African Union forces pushed back rebel and Islamist militant forces that had taken control in the north of the country.
Islamist militants recently launched attacks on both a UN peacekeeping convoy and a Malian military camp in the country's north, killing at least three people.
Khare says he would also appreciate Canada's assistance with a regional protection force in the South Sudan.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan hasn't yet committed to a specific mission, but he recently visited Mali.
"Canadians can be proud of the leadership role we've taken," he said, adding final decisions on priorities for spending will come from a defence policy review the Liberals are finishing up.
But a spokesman for Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose, who arrived at the conference on Friday, said the Opposition wants to know more about what risks the "potentially dangerous" mission might pose for the Canadian military.
Jake Enwright said that Ambrose is scheduled to meet with French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and "is hoping the minister can provide her with details about peacekeeping operations in Africa, given that Justin Trudeau has refused to share details with Canadians."
"Specifically, Ms. Ambrose would like to ask the minister about the French experience in Mali — what challenges exist in such a dangerous region and what types of threats face troops operating in the country."