Canada will provide one RCAF C-17 transport aircraft in a non-combat role to support the operations of its allies in Mali for a week, the Harper government has announced.
"We are responding to a request from our French friends for logistical assistance in the form of heavy-lift [aircraft]. I have, in consultation with the minister of national defence and the minister of foreign affairs, granted that assistance for a period of one week," Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters at an announcement Monday afternoon in Montreal.
"We will obviously, after a few days, analyze how that is going and talk with our allies, but this is intended to be of a short duration," the prime minister said.
"We think that is an appropriate role for Canada, given our relative capacities and interests," he said.
Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair said Canada is sending "mixed signals" and should be working through the United Nations on Mali.
"It is a United Nations decision first and foremost," Mulcair told reporters in Toronto. "We've been getting mixed signals from the Conservatives. We approve the sending of the C-17 to help in the delivery of material, helping the French, but we also think we have to send clear signals to our [UN] partners and that we're consistent on questions like Mali."
Harper's announcement was previewed in a Sunday tweet from Mali's president, Dioncounda Traoré, who said that the United States, Great Britain and Canada are announcing their "support/logistical assistance" as the French military continues to fight the insurgency led by the al-Qaeda-linked extremists in Mali.
Initially, it was unclear what this tweet could be referring to. While the other two countries had moved over the weekend to announce specific support measures for the airstrikes in the former French colony, Canada's on-the-record support for countering the insurgency before today had been only verbal.
The government release issued late Monday morning said the French request received today was for "heavy-lift aircraft to assist in the transport of equipment into the Malian capital of Bamako, a location that is not part of any active combat zone."
"Ultimately, while I congratulate the French for their initiative, as I think the resolution  of the United Nations Security Council itself has recognized, there really has to be significant African participation and African-led participation to make such a mission successful," Harper told reporters in Montreal.
Harper noted that all the permanent members of the Security Council supported the resolution, which resulted from, as he described it, a "serious situation in northern Mali where there are large territory now occupied by essentially terrorist entities who are looking to expand their influence throughout Africa."
"At no time will Canadian Armed Forces members be participating in direct action against insurgent forces in Mali," the prime minister's morning statement said.
The United Nations Security Council was to meet at 3 p.m. ET in New York to discuss the conflict.
During a joint news conference with the chair of the African Union in Ottawa last Tuesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appeared to have ruled out Canadian military intervention.
"The government of Canada is not considering a direct Canadian military mission," he told reporters. "Obviously, we are providing humanitarian aid to this region, which is important. And we are consulting with, and working with, and will continue diplomatically with, our allies in the west, and obviously with our friends in Africa, on ways that we can be of assistance."
A Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said Monday there are approximately 240 registered Canadians in Mali, and the department has been in touch with them directly to encourage them to leave the country. The department is advising against travel to the region, citing the the threat of "terrorism, banditry and kidnapping" in northern Mali and suggesting Canadians already there register at DFAIT's website, travel.gc.ca.
The department said Canadians needing emergency consular assistance should contact the Canadian Embassy in Bamacko at 223 20-21-22-36 or DFAIT's emergency line at 613-996-8885, or email email@example.com.
Canada froze its foreign aid to Mali last March following its coup, but it continues to fund humanitarian assistance through non-governmental organizations working in that country.
Also prior to the coup, Canada had two military officers stationed at the peacekeeping school in Bamako, Mali's capital, as instructors. They returned home last spring when the insurgency took hold.
Over the Christmas holidays, MacKay suggested Canada was considering a "contribution," potentially in a training role.
But speaking on CBC Radio's The House on Jan. 5, International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino said that "Canada remains very concerned about the situation in Mali, and we have not, do not anticipate going there" — a message reiterated by Harper three days later.
French military forces began an aerial bombing campaign late last week to try to support the weakened Malian military's fight against insurgents with ties with the al-Qaeda terrorist network. France wants to see more African troops join the fight.
On Saturday, several West African nations announced they would send troops as early as today, including at least 500 troops each from Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Nigeria.
The U.S. isn't considering sending ground troops or conducting air strikes of its own, but has offered military drones and is said to be considering a broad range of other options for assistance, including intelligence or limited refuelling support for the French campaign.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has announced two RAF C-17 Globemaster cargo planes were offered to support the French military.
"The development of essentially an entire terrorist region in the middle of Africa is obviously of great concern to everyone in the international community," Harper said last week.
But Thomas Boni Yayi, the president of Benin who is currently the chair of the nations in the African Union, said at the same press conference that "there are also other forces outside the African continent that could contribute to take into account the seriousness of the situation and the resources that are required to implement this."