OTTAWA—Canada’s military will stop providing medical evacuation flights for United Nations troops in Mali in August even though it’s not clear when Romanian forces will be ready to take on the role.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Friday that Canada will begin to wind down the Mali mission — the UN’s deadliest mission — starting in July when two helicopters and 80 personnel will return home.
In August, the Canadians will curtail its mission to providing medical evacuations only before it ends entirely on Aug. 31, even though the Romanians are not expected to have their own operation ready until October.
“Canada is committed to a pragmatic and practical withdrawal,” Freeland said.
UN officials have warned Canada that the gap could cause serious problems if UN personnel are attacked and injured and cannot be rapidly airlifted to a medical facility, a point highlighted in a Commons’ defence committee report on the mission.
“I don’t actually have an exact date,” he told reporters. “These are the details that will be worked out by the military leadership.”
Canada deployed three CH-47F Chinook transport helicopters and five CH-146 Griffon helicopters supported by some 250 personnel to Mali last July.
Their primary role was providing medical evacuations for troops serving in what is the UN’s deadliest mission — by the end of February, 195 personnel had been killed since it started in 2013. Over the past year, Canadians have flown 10 medical evacuation flights.
The dates announced Friday means the mission will stretch a little longer than initially planned but it’s not likely the Romanians will be ready to take over by the time the Canadians leave. That will force the UN to make alternate arrangements with civilian contractors to provide evacuation flights.
“The troops on the ground will have medical evacuation support all the way throughout the transition,” Sajjan said.
Yet officials attached to the UN mission told MPs during their own visit to Mali that the civilian option falls short of the capabilities offered by military forces.
“They explained that military helicopters and aircrews can fly at night, and can operate in riskier and more dangerous environments than their civilian counterparts because they are armed and use more sophisticated technology and equipment,” members of the Commons defence committee noted in a report on the mission.
“A senior UN official said that it would be greatly appreciated if Canada could prolong its mission as long as possible in order to minimize the gap,” the report said.
Freeland said that Canada has offered the Romanians the use of its C-17 transport aircraft to help with its deployment to Mali.
The Liberals ran on an election pledge to “recommit” to supporting international peace operations with the United Nations. But the government has been slow to make good on that promise.
Canada’s offer to the UN of a military C-130 transport aircraft for logistical support in Africa — first made in November 2017 — has yet to be acted on. Sajjan said the aircraft is ready to go but that the UN has “work that they also need to do.”
Sajjan offered no comment on the government’s other high-profile promise — the deployment of a quick reaction force to support a UN mission.
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier