Romania hopes Canada will help ‘minimize the gap’ ahead of Mali mission handover

Romania’s top diplomat in Ottawa says his country is moving as fast as it can to minimize a gap in the provision of lifesaving medical evacuations for injured UN peacekeepers after Canada ends its mission in Mali.

The problem, says Bogdan Manoiu, is the helicopters the Romanian government plans to send are undergoing significant upgrades and the aircrews who will fly them need to be trained – neither of which can be rushed.

“Those helicopters will be deemed as having new capabilities. So it’s an extensive, major upgrading. It’s not something superficial,” Manoiu told The Canadian Press in an interview.

“And the other side of the coin is that the troops have to be prepared in order to use those capabilities. And then the UN itself has to certify the new capabilities. So this is why it is taking that long.”

Manoiu’s comments follow the Trudeau government’s most recent refusal to extend Canada’s mission in Mali past the end of July, when the eight helicopters and 250 military personnel there will cease operations.

Romania agreed last year to take over from Canada by sending its own helicopters and peacekeepers to provide medical evacuations as well as logistical support to the UN mission in northern Mali, which aims to stabilize the country following a rebellion and a military coup.

But the Romanians have said they won’t be ready to start operations until mid-October, which has created the threat of a months-long gap that the UN says will hurt its efforts in the sprawling West African nation.

With the Liberals having repeatedly rebuffed the UN’s requests to keep the Canadians in Mali longer, some – including the House of Commons defence committee – have turned their attention to getting Romania there faster.

The committee recently recommended Canada offer transport aircraft to help Romania ferry its troops and helicopters to Mali, while sources say Canadian military experts have been in touch with Romanian counterparts.

That included a visit to Bucharest by the previous commander of Canada’s peacekeeping force in Mali, Col. Chris McKenna, in March.

While he welcomed any assistance that Canada or any other country is willing to offer to speed the arrival of Romanian peacekeepers in Mali, Manoiu said it is too early to say whether transport aircraft would help.

And while he admitted the gap was “an element of concern,” Manoiu said Romania respects Canada’s decision to leave at the end of July and has not asked it to stay longer.

“We do not ask the Canadians to extend the mission,” he said. “We respect that. They say (they will leave) July 31, fine. We said we would replace them, excellent. Now it’s about the joint endeavour to minimize the gap.”

The UN formally asked Canada at the end of the February to stay in Mali until mid-October, but Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland rejected that request following a peacekeeping summit in New York last month.

UN officials told the Commons’ defence committee during a recent visit to Mali that without the Canadians or Romanians, they would be forced to “scale down operations.”

The government has offered little explanation for its decision not to extend the mission.

The committee’s report did suggest military officials are worried about the helicopters’ mechanical condition and want them ready for crises back home, though others have linked the decision to this fall’s federal election.

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