Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid a surprise, secret visit to Canadian military aircrew and medical technicians deployed on the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Gao, Mali.
The four-hour trip to the air base in the troubled West African country, the hub of multinational operations in the region, was carried out under a total news blackout.
Although, he has visited soldiers in Ukraine and Latvia, it is Trudeau’s first journey as prime minister to what is ostensibly a conflict zone.
It was also the first time he has visited a contingent in the field since the Liberal government re-committed Canada to support peace operations and gave the UN a long list of promises.
He spent a little over four-and-a-half hours on the ground and described it as an “extraordinary privilege and honour.”
Trudeau praised the work of the up to 250 flight crew, medics and support personnel, saying they are “contributing to the UN mission in significant ways.”
More personally, serving and then sitting down to Christmas dinner with the troops, he told one table, some of whom wanted to take selfies with him, that he had come a long way to have dinner with friends.
Trudeau was greeted on the tarmac of the air base by Malian Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga and the country’s senior military officials.
Canada committed to keep its aircraft serving the UN mission for only one year.
Romania to take over mission
During a background briefing, a senior military official said the helicopters will cease flying operations on July 31 and the contingent will be rotated home.
Romania agreed just a few days ago to replace Canada in Gao, but the timing of their arrival is still being arranged with the UN.
Watch: Retired general Rick Hillier on Mali peacekeeping
“Ideally, they would come in August or September, but [we] don’t know when they’re going to come on the ground,” said the official. “It is an ongoing discussion with the UN.”
Asked if there will be a gap between the two contingents, the official said: “There could be. We don’t know yet.”
It was reported a few weeks ago that the UN had asked Canada to remain a few extra months, but the overture had been rejected. The military official said he wasn’t aware of the overture.
“We are very much working with the United Nations to make sure the transition happens smoothly,” Trudeau said. “And we’re confident — we are hearing from the UN that there isn’t any real concern about that gap.”
Medical airlift a critical role
The helicopters are being used to ferry troops from other UN nations around Mali, which has been wracked by political and tribal violence, as well as Islamic extremists.
They are also used for medical airlift. One of the CH-147F Chinook helicopters has been outfitted with a full trauma suite.
Trudeau was given a demonstration of a simulated mission — known in military terms as a Nine-Liner.
The task force has conducted only five medical evacuations since August, but the senior military official said peacekeepers from emerging nations, which provide the bulk of the troops, are becoming better trained and experienced, and likely avoiding many of the traps being set for them.
The task force commander, Col. Chris McKenna, said the capability is invaluable to the UN and has instilled confidence in people throughout the surrounding area.
“This is a mission that badly needs Canada’s help, quite honestly from my point of view,” McKenna said late Saturday.
Medical evacuation “guarantees confidence to drive on the roads here” and it is a message he repeats often, he said.
“The way I characterize it to my soldiers every day is: We’re the cavalry. If something bad happens, I’m coming to get you.”
The potential for roadside bombings remains high, particularly along Mali’s RN-15, which has been given the nickname “Highway of Death” by UN troops because of the number of improvised explosive device strikes that have taken place.
There have been 177 peacekeepers killed in Mali since the UN mission was conceived in 2013 following a jihadist takeover of the northern part of the country. French troops eventually retook the region and continue to fight a low-intensity counter-terrorism war, separate from UN operations.
The tribal unrest and fighting, however, have spread to the south and central portions of the country.