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Canadian air crews in Mali now ready for medical evacuations

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2018-08-01 Levon Sevunts
a group of people standing outside of a building: Security officers stand guard in front of a polling station during presidential elections in Bamako, Mali, Sunday, July 29, 2018. Voting started slowly Sunday as people in Mali head to the polls amid increasing attacks by a number of extremist groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State organization. © Baba Ahmed/The Associated Press Security officers stand guard in front of a polling station during presidential elections in Bamako, Mali, Sunday, July 29, 2018. Voting started slowly Sunday as people in Mali head to the polls amid increasing attacks by a number of extremist groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State organization.

The Canadian peacekeeping contingent in Mali reached its first operational milestone Wednesday: it's now capable of conducting medical air evacuations in support of the United Nations operation there.

The news came just a day after a deadly attack on a convoy carrying election materials illustrated the kinds of situations Canadian air crews could be called on to deal with as they begin their duties in the volatile West African nation.

Canada has deployed about 250 soldiers and eight helicopters to provide the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) with a 24/7 aeromedical evacuation capability, as well as tactical airlift.

As of Wednesday, Task Force Mali had reached its initial operational capability, which means it is now capable of conducting round-the-clock aeromedical operations when called upon by MINUSMA command, said Capt. Christopher Daniel, a spokesperson for the Canadian Joint Operations Command.

"The various related projects were completed in time to permit Canada to declare to the UN that the Task Force (is) ready to conduct 24/7 operations," Daniel said.

Once the Canadian task force reaches full operational capability by mid-August, it also will provide tactical airlift or air mobility support for MINUSMA by hauling troops, equipment, supplies and food within Mali, Daniel said.

Canadian air crews were not involved in the response to Tuesday's attack in the south-central region of Segou that killed four Malian soldiers and eight militants, Daniel said.

But the deadly ambush once again illustrated the dangers facing the UN mission and the soldiers from five neighbouring sub-Saharan countries deployed to stabilize the war-torn country.

Mali's presidential election — the second since Tuareg rebels and allied Islamists took over the north in 2012, prompting French forces to intervene the following year to push them back — has been beset by attacks at the hands of suspected Islamist militants and allied ethnic militia.

A dangerous election season

Armed attackers succeeded in shutting down 644 polling stations on Sunday, representing about three per cent of the total. A fifth of all polling stations suffered some kind of disruption, figures from the Ministry of Territorial Administration showed.

Jihadists have rendered almost all of north and central Mali unsafe by continually targeting foreign and local interests, taking hostages and attacking security and peacekeeping forces.

The Canadian task force includes three medium lift CH-147F Chinook helicopters and five CH-146 Griffon helicopters. The Griffons, armed with side-mounted machine guns, will be providing security to the Chinooks, which are equipped to provide care for up to two critically injured patients and several walking wounded.

The Canadians will be flying in teams of three aircraft: two Griffon armed escorts and a Chinook medical transport to pick up the wounded.

"Although they have not been tasked yet by MINUSMA to respond to real life situations, our Task Force Mali personnel have been exercising realistic training scenarios to further increase their readiness to conduct aeromedical missions," Daniel said.

While the mission waits for the Canadians to reach full operational capability, the UN has hired a civilian company to fill in the gap, Myriam Dessables, spokesperson for MINUSMA, told Radio Canada International.

With files from Reuters

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