Canada aims for August Mali deployment of Blue Helmets: minister

Montreal (AFP) - Canada aims to deploy peacekeepers backed by helicopters to join UN Blue Helmets in Mali in August, the country's defense minister said on Sunday.

A date had not previously been set by Ottawa, which announced last week that it would send an infantry unit and military trainers along with helicopters to the west African country for 12 months to support an ongoing UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA).

"We're looking at right now this summer. We're aiming for August," Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan told CTV, acknowledging that Mali "has become a very dangerous mission."

The Canadian force will include two Chinook helicopters for logistics and transport, along with four armed Griffon helicopters.

The unit will be made up of both men and women, part of a goal previously announced by Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland to increase female participation in peacekeeping.

Sajjan has said the Canadians will conduct reconnaissance, facilitate medical evacuations for the 57 UN partner nations already on the ground in Mali, and help plan missions.

Canada currently has only 25 soldiers tasked to UN missions and had faced pressure to commit troops to Mali, where there is a need for French-speaking peacekeepers.

Created in 2013, MINUSMA has about 11,000 troops. More than 150 have been killed in Mali, making it currently the most dangerous peacekeeping mission in the world.

Jihadists have ramped up their activities in the center of the country, targeting domestic and foreign forces in outbreaks of violence once confined to the country's north.

Two senior Canadian diplomats were kidnapped and held hostage in northern Mali in 2009.