OTTAWA// Canada is prepared to close its military base in the United Arab Emirates rather than agree to demands for more Canadian landing rights for UAE airlines, say top Canadian officials.
However, they say the two countries are still talking and have not ruled out the prospect that a solution could be reached. Camp Mirage has been used by the Canadian military, as well as the forces of other countries, as a stopover and refuelling station to support military operations in Afghanistan.
In an interview with the Canadian press, Peter MacKay, the Canadian defence minister, indicated that Camp Mirage would probably be closed within the month. He added that the Canadian forces had contingency plans to set up another base for flights to Afghanistan. "One thing I know about the Canadian Forces is they are very adaptable," he said. "They have alternative plans, they have contingency plans. So with that in mind, we are going through the various options that are before us right now and we will continue to do our mission here in Afghanistan primarily and we'll find other ways to support this mission through other hubs within the region."
Mr MacKay said bilateral discussions had been going on for some time and Canada would abide by the UAE's wishes. A UAE official told Reuters on Monday that the memorandum of understanding (MoU) governing the camp had expired. "Canada kept giving excuses and playing for time," the official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. "In the spirit of goodwill, the UAE went ahead and gave them the extension. The MoU has now expired and that is that."
In an indication of just how sensitive the Canadian government regards the issue, phone calls to a variety of government departments, including defence and transport, were all referred to foreign affairs, which in turn referred reporters to the minister's office. Catherine Loubier, director of communications for the foreign affairs minister, Lawrence Cannon, said Canada has a strong relationship with the UAE and would like to maintain it. "Canada fully expects to maintain a positive relationship with this important country, and it is in the interests of both countries to do so," she said.
The dispute boiled over this week amid unconfirmed reports that a plane carrying Mr MacKay and Canada's top general, Gen Walter J Natynczyk, from Afghanistan was refused permission to land at Camp Mirage. Ms Loubier refused to confirm the reports, saying the government could not comment on operational matters concerning the deployment of Canadian forces abroad. "What I can say is that the government of Canada is fully capable of supporting its military commitments in Afghanistan," Ms Loubier said.
"The Government of Canada always chooses arrangements that are in the best interests of Canadians. Canada's mission in Afghanistan is supported from a number of locations in Canada and abroad. Our planners are working to ensure minimal impact upon ongoing and future operations in Afghanistan." The latest dispute follows unusually frank comments by the UAE's ambassador to Canada in the ongoing commercial negotiations over landing rights for UAE airlines. Mohammed Abdullah al Ghafli expressed dismay that the talks had been fruitless, saying it had been a "protracted and frustrating" process trying to expand routes between the two countries.
Ms Loubier yesterday said Etihad Airways and Emirates Airline are already allowed to fly to different Canadian cities, including Calgary and Vancouver. She said they can fly to Canada up to three times a week, but have chosen to make all their flights to Toronto. Ms Loubier added that Canada "greatly values the near-daily flights to Canada from the two airlines." UAE officials insist there is no connection between the commercial and military matters of the two countries.
* The National, with additional reporting by Matt Kwong