It's a humanitarian crisis in an African nation that couldn't feel farther away from Winnipeg's frigid climes.
But there are local links to epic problems raging in Mali, including the work of former Winnipegger Jane Iredale.
The 45-year-old is an assistant country director with CARE International, based in Mali's capital city of Bamako.
The country was thrust into political crisis after a coup last year, and the United Nations has identified "serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, rape, and torture" that have happened there. Mali has also grappled with a drought in a belt of land across northern Africa known as the Sahel, which has aggravated conditions for Malians.
"CARE and other humanitarian actors in the country are very concerned about the situation presently, and the consequences over the next days, weeks, maybe months," said Iredale, who graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1992 and later earned a degree in development economics at the University of London.
"It's very, very difficult to operate in a context with high levels of insecurity. So that's a major priority for CARE, for all of the humanitarian actors right now, that we have (safe) access to people who are in need of assistance."
CARE International said 344,000 people, including refugees who've fled to other countries for safety, have had to leave their homes due to "continuous fighting and the volatile situation."
Iredale said CARE International is focusing on areas such as food assistance and providing safe water.
The organization distributes kits to displaced people containing material such as food, water, blankets and cooking utensils.
"Mali really is a very poor nation. It's one of the poorest nations in the world," Iredale said.
"The food crisis really hit the country very hard, and still today, two million Malians are experiencing food insecurity. There's a high level of malnutrition."
Earlier this month, troops from France arrived with the goal of trying to halt the conflict spreading from the northern part of the country to the south.
"In Bamako itself, I'd say the social tensions are quite high, but on the surface, it appears calm. There's certainly less circulation (of people), there's much more control and checkpoints in and around the city," said Iredale.
Iredale travels regularly, but her movements are restricted.
"We've seen a lot of heavy fighting with the startup of a military intervention, so the security situation has been deteriorating significantly, even before the arrival of French troops," she said. "My movement as a foreigner living in Mali has been reduced considerably over the last several months."
Iredale said she doesn't feel endangered and lives with her partner, another former Winnipegger, in Bamako.
Iredale was based in Burundi working for CARE before living in Mali.
She was also based in Winnipeg from about 2000 to 2006 doing consulting work.
"I'm here with my family in Bamako. We certainly don't feel in danger. What's really important to know is that so many Malians are in danger," she said. "It's really a very volatile and a fluid situation, and many, many Malians are at risk because of this fighting."
The images people are seeing on the news aren't "the best scenes of Mali, as they're related to conflict," she said.
"But the country itself is incredibly rich in terms of its culture and traditions, and different ethnic groups, and incredibly rich just in terms of its terrain and its geography," said Iredale.
Canada extends aircraft support role for France
OTTAWA -- The Harper government's commitment of a giant Royal Canadian Air Force transport plane to support French military action in Mali -- originally just a one-week assignment -- has been extended to a full month.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said the C-17 Globemaster would continue to ferry military equipment and vehicles between France and the Malian capital of Bamako until Feb. 15.
The aircraft won't be part of combat operations, they insisted.
"Our government has a strong record of supporting international efforts to combat terrorist activities," MacKay said in a statement Thursday.
"This Canadian military asset provides France an important strategic lift capacity that enables them to pursue a more stable and secure region."
There had been speculation the government would provide a smaller, C-130J Hercules transport to carry African troops into Mali, where forces are fighting to retake the northern half of the country from al Qaida-linked militants.
-- The Canadian Press