Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Geography, Distance Emerge as Major Foes for Canadian Peacekeepers in Mali

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Geography, Distance Emerge as Major Foes for Canadian Peacekeepers in Mali

Article excerpt

Distance, geography complicate Mali mission


OTTAWA - Distance and geography have been cited as the primary reasons Canadian medical helicopters remained on the ground in northern Mali during two bloody attacks on United Nations peacekeepers last fall.

The Oct. 28 attacks on Ber and Konna by Islamic extremists left two peacekeepers dead and more than a dozen injured on the single bloodiest day for the UN mission in Mali since Canadian peacekeepers arrived at the end of June.

Yet while the main purpose of Canada's 12-month mission in Mali is to provide helicopter-borne medical evacuations for injured peacekeepers and UN officials, the Canadians were not deployed in that role.

Small Griffon helicopters were used to fly a bomb-disposal team to and from their base in Gao to Timbuktu, near Ber. They also helped refortify the UN camp at Ber by delivering personnel and materials from Timbuktu.

But Canadian mission commander Col. Chris McKenna, whose troops have performed only five medical evacuations since August, says the larger Chinook helicopters specifically configured as flying hospitals were not sent.

For Ber, McKenna said the UN decided to deploy contracted civilian helicopters that were already based in Timbuktu because it is much closer.

"There's a bunch of contracted aircraft that are right around the theatre that the UN can elect to deploy, and so that would have been the closest asset to that incident," McKenna said in an interview on Tuesday.

As for Konna, McKenna said the Canadian helicopters would have had to stop to refuel before arriving on the scene, which is why the UN similarly turned to other alternatives.

"You would have to step through somewhere to get gas," he said. "You're talking about hours and hours to just get to the incident site and be effective. ... It would be like launching a medevac chopper out of Ottawa to get to Kingston. …

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