Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan sidestepped a question Monday about Canadian peacekeepers supporting an African-led counterterror force in Mali, saying Canada has already helped what is known as the Group of Five Sahel.
The United Nations Security Council in December authorized the peacekeeping mission in Mali to provide assistance to the group, a military force composed of troops from five African nations.
That assistance includes medical evacuations for combat and non-combat injuries as well as the provision of fuel, water and rations — exactly what the six Canadian military helicopters due to arrive in Mali in August will be configured to do.
The revelation last week that Canadian helicopters could be used to support the G5 Sahel force sparked opposition calls for the Liberal government to provide more information about what the Canadian military is walking into in Mali.
While Sajjan did not say Monday whether Canadian peacekeepers would end up helping the counterterror mission, he did note that Canada has “actually been supporting the G5 Sahel force for some time.”
“We’ve been doing capacity-building in that region,” he said during an event at the University of Calgary. “We’ve been supporting with logistical support to the French with tactical airlift.”
Canada has sporadically provided a heavy transport aircraft to move weapons and equipment into Mali for the French military, which helped establish and has been working alongside the G5 Sahel since last year.
The most recent flight was in February, and there were four before that going back to November 2016.
The Canadian military has also been helping train local forces in Niger, one of the five African countries participating in the G5 Sahel.
“So we’ve been supporting that and being a responsible partner for some time,” Sajjan said. “We will always look at how we can best support our partners in all aspects of challenges around the world.”
The G5 Sahel, whose members are Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Niger and Mali, has been tasked with fighting jihadists and transnational crime groups across a large swath of West Africa south of the Sahara desert.
The force was the brainchild of France, which has been conducting counterterror operations in Mali and the region since 2012, and it enjoys financial backing from France, the U.S., the European Union and others.
But the 5,000-strong force’s first operation in November was plagued by logistical problems, and it remains very much a work in progress despite political support from a variety of powers including Russia and China.
It was in that context that the UN Security Council passed a resolution Dec. 8 emphasizing the G5 Sahel’s role in bringing security to the region and authorizing the UN mission in Mali to provide support to the African force.
An agreement between the UN, the EU and G5 Sahel members to provide operational and logistical support to the force through the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, or MINUSMA, was signed in February, a UN spokesperson said.
Security Council members specifically authorized the provision of medical evacuations, including those related to combat and other malicious acts, as well as fuel, water, rations and engineering services to the G5 force.
Such support is to be restricted to Mali, in accordance with the UN mission’s own boundaries, and only when it won’t negatively affect the peacekeeping mission’s own operations.