OTTAWA – Containing the spread of terrorism across Africa is a consideration for Canada as it mulls where best to contribute to a UN peacekeeping mission, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said Wednesday.
The government has yet to make up its mind on where it will send its peacekeepers, in fulfillment of a major foreign policy priority, Sajjan said. But Canada wants to have an impact wherever it deploys troops, he added, and doesn’t want to send a contingent to a specific country simply for the sake of doing so.
Sources say a mission to Mali, the West African country where more than a dozen peacekeepers have been killed this year, is a serious option for the government.
“Mali was definitely on the radar screen,” said a well-placed source with knowledge of the process, who spoke on the condition they not be named because they weren’t authorized to discuss the matter.
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Sajjan said the need to control the spread of Islamic militants across the Middle East and Africa is part of the government’s calculation in determining where Canada’s eventual peacekeeping mission will be focused.
“We can’t look at a country in isolation,” Sajjan said from Kuwait after visiting Canadian military personnel there and in neighbouring Iraq who are talking part in the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against the Islamic State.
“The reason I think when it comes to looking at Africa … you can look at various groups like Boko Haram, al-Shabaab who are trying to make a greater network with (ISIS).”
In West Africa, Boko Haram has wreaked havoc in northern Nigeria and neighbouring Chad, while al-Shabaab has used the chaos in Somalia to establish a foothold that has threatened East Africa.
France is leading the current UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, which has faced threats in its north from al-Qaida and other militant groups. The 12,000-strong mission has been trying to stabilize the country after French forces drove out an al-Qaida occupation in 2012, making it one of the most dangerous peacekeeping missions on the planet.
Last month, the UN special representative for Mali said 19 peacekeepers had been killed in attacks by extremists between February and May of this year.
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“It is a risky venture because it can be unpredictable, but we will do our assessment,” Sajjan said during a conference call with journalists. He said the Forces will “mitigate” any threats by making sure they have the right training and equipment.
“We need to look at the root causes of the problem, how certain radical groups will feed into other conflict zones,” Sajjan said.
“Certain parts of the world … haven’t gotten the right amount of attention, and that’s why we’re looking at Africa.”
A source said military personnel will be sent to West Africa in the coming weeks “to scope it out” for a potential mission.
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Sajjan himself hinted that he would be making “certain visits” to gather first-hand information on the ground, as he did this week in Iraq.
Protecting civilians and leveraging Canada’s ability to provide French-speaking troops would be among the considerations in deciding where the country decides to deploy, said Chantal Gagnon, a spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion.
Mali and Canada are both members of La Francophonie. Mali is also one of Canada’s so-called countries of focus for international development assistance.