Special forces from the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR) have been sent to train Mali’s military as it counters al Qaeda militants.
The troops from Petawawa, Ontario, are not involved in direct combat as they are primarily there to advise Malian troops and provide training in communications, planning and first aid. They will also provide medical aid and support to civilians, Canadian media report.
Mali is struggling with a growing presence of gunmen from Al Qaeda’s African wing, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which operates from bases in northern Mali and is believed to be behind the recent kidnappings and murders of Western tourists.
Last month five people were kidnapped in separate cases, and a German national was killed as he tried to resist abduction.
The threat of attacks by Al Qaeda-linked operatives in Mali has cost the West African state some 50 billion CFA francs (US$108 million) in lost tourism receipts and 8,000 jobs over the past two years, its government said.
“This is exactly the place we should be in terms of trying to develop a counter-terrorism capacity in the Sahel and in North Africa,” said Brigadier General Denis Thompson, head of the Ottawa-based Canadian Special Operations Forces Command. “This is a natural fit for us.”
Earlier this year the Canadian Special Operations Regiment sent a small team to northern Mali to provide instruction for that country’s special forces. Another team is currently in the capital city of Bamako providing counter-terrorism skills training and officer training. The teams number fewer than 15 soldiers.
Thompson said that small teams will continue to move in and out of Mali as the country requires training.
CSOR was created in 2006 to help support the Ottawa-based counter-terrorism unit, Joint Task Force Two, as well as to conduct its own missions. Its soldiers have undertaken operations in Afghanistan, but the details of those missions are classified, Postmedia News reports.
In February and March this year roughly 15 CSOR personnel took part in Exercise Flintlock in Senegal, a US-led training event. The Canadian forces instructed Malian troops in small unit tactics and other disciplines.
Thompson said that Canadian special forces will take part in the Flintlock exercise in Mali next year.
Mali has been criticised by neighbours and Western partners for not doing enough to tackle bandits, local al Qaeda agents and other groups operating in the vast Sahel region straddling Niger, Mauritania, Algeria and Mali.
The countries are struggling to contain the growing threat by Islamist militants operating across West Africa’s remote desert regions.
Though it was still not clear who was responsible for the kidnappings last month, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has in the past claimed responsibility for similar abductions.
President Amadou Toumani Toure said his country would do its utmost to improve regional security but he said international partners had to play a role, notably by addressing the implications of the Libyan war for its close neighbours.
Neighbouring states have for months raised concerns about a spillover of looted weapons from Libya into a region which has several rebel groups as well as al Qaeda-linked guerrillas.
In August Mali launched a 32 billion CFA franc (US$69 million) programme to try and restore the government’s authority in its desert north where a mix of rebels and criminals have fomented insecurity through kidnappings, smuggling and uprisings.
“Poverty and insecurity are perfect breeding grounds for terrorism and fundamentalism,” Toure said while explaining the two-year plan.
The influence of the central government in the isolated north has always been weak, and nomadic Tuareg rebels launched rebellions there in the 1990s and in 2007.
But Mali, Niger and Mauritania have struggled to tackle the spreading insecurity, which has seen drug smuggling rise and dozens of Westerners kidnapped and mostly end in the hands of al Qaeda’s North African wing.
Western nations led by former colonial power France and the United States have led efforts to provide military support to these countries but analysts say more progress in development and tackling corruption is needed.