OTTAWA — The federal government is sending a "reconnaissance mission" to take a closer look at the United Nations peacekeeping operations in Mali.
Officials insist the fact-finding mission, a small group of diplomats, military personnel and RCMP officers, does not mean the government has decided to send Canadian peacekeepers to the west African country.
But one expert says it does suggest that, despite its dangers, Mali is at the top of the list of peacekeeping missions that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could announce as early as mid-September.
The Liberal government said last week that it will make up to 600 troops available for UN peacekeeping operations, including specialized units and equipment such as engineers, medical personnel and military aircraft.
Yet noticeably absent was any indication of which countries or UN missions the government was considering. Trudeau said the government would discuss the matter with the UN and other nations and decide based on where Canada could best contribute.
Defence Department spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier would not provide specific details about the reconnaissance mission to Mali, citing security concerns.
But he said the delegation will meet counterparts from the Malian government as well as commanders of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, or MINUSMA, as it is known.
"The purpose of this reconnaissance mission is to develop our knowledge and understanding of MINUSMA in order to provide advice to the government," Le Bouthillier said in an email. "The overriding objective is to provide appropriate guidance and advice to the government."
Le Bouthillier said federal departments are working with the UN "to best assess where we can contribute military assets."
Aside from Mali, the government is also believed to be looking at missions in the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan visited at the beginning of August.
But Walter Dorn, an expert on peacekeeping at the Royal Military College of Canada, said Sajjan's visit to the DRC was different because it was political.
"This is more operational and planning," he said. "Sending a recon mission to Mali is a strong indication that Canada is putting it high on a list of possible deployments."
The government has not said when a decision will be made. However, Dorn is among those who feel the most likely scenario would be when the UN General Assembly opens in New York in mid-September.
Mali has long been seen as among the top candidates for a Canadian mission in Africa. MINUSMA was established in April 2013 after French and African Union forces pushed back rebel and Islamic militant forces that had taken control in the north of the country.
The current peacekeeping force numbers about 13,000 troops and 2,000 police and while it includes contributions from Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, most of the contingents are from countries in Africa and South Asia. The mission is extremely complex and includes everything from training local forces to protecting civilians, to counter-insurgency operations.
It is has also become the most dangerous UN peacekeeping mission in the world, with 105 peacekeepers killed over the last four years, including 31 this year alone. One peacekeeper from Chad was killed and four others were wounded when their vehicle hit a mine in northern Mali on Aug. 7.
Those dangers may cause some Canadians to shy away from Mali.
But a UN official in New York pointed out that Canada's recent experience in complex theatres of operation such as Afghanistan, combined with the Canadian military's advanced technical and operational capabilities, would prepare their units for deployments into challenging missions such as MINUSMA.
The Canadian military's francophone skills would also be important in a country such as Mali, the official said.
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Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press