GAO, Mali — Canada entered a new era of peacekeeping on Sunday as the first dozen members of Canada’s mission in Mali landed at a UN base near the desolate city of Gao.
The troops were accompanied by chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance following a day of meetings in the West African nation’s capital, Bamako, with senior Malian and UN officials.
The sun beat down on the hot tarmac as Vance, several senior officers and the 12-member advance team exited the Hercules transport plane that had carried them into Gao, which about 250 Canadians will call home for the next year.
Vance was greeted by several German officers, who have a large peacekeeping contingent in Mali that includes a unit of helicopters, some of which Canada will replace in the coming weeks.
The members of the advance team are only the first in what will be a steady stream of troops and equipment through June and August, including eight helicopters, into the area to help the beleaguered UN mission.
Their main mission will be to provide medical evacuations for the hundreds of UN troops operating in the northern and central parts of the country, where a tenuous peace deal between some armed groups and the government is in place but many other factions continue to fight against each other, the government and international forces.
The Trudeau government in March promised two large Chinook transport helicopters and four smaller Griffon escorts to replace the Germans, but Vance confirmed that one more of each will be deployed to Mali as a spare in case any of the others breaks down.
The arrival of the troops on Sunday marks the culmination — long overdue in the view of some — of the Liberal government’s promised return to peacekeeping for the Canadian Forces.
Yet the Mali mission remains contentious back home, with some criticizing the government’s emphasis on peacekeeping and others questioning whether there is any peace to keep in Mali.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press