Canada to send helicopters to U.N. Mali mission, allies relieved

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada will send six helicopters and 250 support troops to join a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali this year, officials said on Monday, ending two years of deliberations that had upset allies.

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Canada plans to deploy two Chinook transport helicopters and four Griffon attack helicopters to provide armed escort and protection in the fight against Islamist militants in the violence-torn West African nation.

Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan, saying many details still needed to be worked out, told reporters the force would be deployed for 12 months. A U.N. spokeswoman said the mission would start in August.

The United Nations on Monday said 162 people deployed in Mali have been killed since 2013, making it the world’s deadliest peacekeeping operation.

“We always act to mitigate as best as possible the level of risk that Canadian armed forces personnel face while on operations ... although we cannot altogether eliminate the risks,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told legislators.

Earlier this month, four U.N. peacekeepers were killed by a roadside bomb in central Mali.

The announcement is less ambitious than Trudeau’s Liberal government had initially planned. Shortly after coming to power in late 2015, Ottawa promised to commit up to 600 troops to U.N. peacekeeping operations.

Although Sajjan himself visited Mali and Canada sent two reconnaissance missions to the country, the government at the time never formally said it would send troops there.

Ministers later put the plans on hold amid fears of casualties, angering allies who said they felt let down, and prompting some to speculate the delay could hurt Canada’s bid for a nonpermanent seat at the U.N. Security Council.

“Canada’s contribution will play a valuable role in the continued efforts to bring peace and stability to Mali,” said U.N. spokeswoman Charlotte Larbuisson.

Sajjan played down the idea the Canadian force was too small to make a difference, telling reporters it would “have a tremendous impact on the mission” given that the U.N. had specifically asked for helicopters.

Diplomats welcomed Monday’s announcement, saying it would help peacekeepers operate without interruption.

Lisa Raitt, deputy leader of the official opposition Conservative party, told Trudeau in the House of Commons there would be a real threat to Canadian soldiers and told him it was “absolutely deplorable” to provide so few details.

James Bezan, the Conservative party’s defense spokesman, had earlier accused the Liberals of sending troops to a highly dangerous country to help Trudeau’s “selfish political ambition to win a seat on the U.N. Security Council”.

(This story has been corrected to make clear in paras 8 and 9 that Canadian government did not commit to sending troops to Mali after taking power in 2015)

Additional reporting by Rodrigo Campos at the United Nations and Leah Schnurr in Ottawa; Editing by Phil Berlowitz, Jonathan Oatis and Susan Thomas