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Canada sending military plane to Mali

Harper insists personnel won't engage in combat

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OTTAWA -- Canada is contributing one of its large C-17 military cargo planes to deliver supplies to the capital of Mali after a request from France.

But Prime Minister Stephen Harper insists no Canadian Forces personnel will be involved in any combat action in the landlocked West African country. And he says the transport plane commitment will be short.

An al-Qaida-linked group has seized the northern part of Mali and is advancing south.

The Canadian plane will be used to transport equipment and supplies into the Malian capital of Bamako, which is not in the combat zone.

France, which began airstrikes last week against insurgents in the north, has ordered the immediate evacuation of all French nationals living in the Malian town of Segou.

"There is a serious situation in northern Mali, where there is a large territory now occupied by essentially terrorist entities, who are looking at expanding their influence throughout Africa," Harper said at a Montreal news conference.

"This is a serious enough matter that it has been the subject of a United Nations Security Council resolution supported by all permanent members demanding that there be some kind of international action.

"Our allies, the French, have decided to take the lead on that and have requested specifically from a number of allies, including Canada, very limited and defined support in the form of heavy-lift logistical support."

The C-17 has been committed for only a week.

"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.

The real solution must rely on African-led participation, but in the meantime, Canada will lend a hand to the French, he said.

"We think that is an appropriate role for Canada, given our relative capacities and interests."

Despite a punishing aerial bombardment by French warplanes, insurgents grabbed more territory in Mali on Monday, seizing a strategic military camp that brought them far closer to the government's seat of power.

Declaring France had "opened the gates of hell" with its assault, the rebels threatened retribution.

"France... has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia," declared Omar Ould Hamaha, a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the rebel groups controlling the north, speaking on French radio Europe 1.

French fighter jets have been pummelling the insurgents' desert stronghold in the north since Friday, determined to shatter the Islamist domination of a region many fear could become a launch pad for terrorist attacks on the West and a base for co-ordination with al-Qaida in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

The Islamist fighters responded with a counter-offensive Monday, overrunning the garrison town of Diabaly, about 160 kilometres north of Segou, the administrative capital of central Mali, said French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

The French Embassy in Bamako immediately ordered the evacuation of the roughly 60 French nationals in the Segou region, said a French citizen who insisted on anonymity out of fear for her safety.

France expanded its aerial bombing campaign, launching airstrikes for the first time in central Mali to combat the new threat.

But the intense assault, including raids by gunship helicopters and Mirage fighter jets, failed to halt the advance of the rebels, who were only 400 kilometres from Bamako, in the far south.

The rebels "took Diabaly after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army that couldn't hold them back," said Le Drian.

Mali's military is in disarray and has let many towns fall with barely a shot fired since the insurgency in the West African nation began almost a year ago. While the al-Qaida-linked extremists control the north, they had been blocked in the narrow central part of the landlocked nation.

They appear to have now done a flanking move, opening a second front in the broad southern section of the country, knifing in from the west on government forces.

In response to the insurgent advances, Mauritania, which lies to the northwest of Mali, put its military on high alert.

To the south, the nation of Burkina Faso sent military reinforcements to its border and set up roadblocks. Even Algeria, which had earlier argued against a military intervention, was helping France by opening its air space to French Rafale jets.

-- The Canadian Press, The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 15, 2013 A8

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