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Canada 'moving quickly' to find replacement for UAE base, MacKay says

Canadian soldiers rush to reinforce troops after one of their comrades was injured by an IED during a patrol southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan, on June 7, 2010.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP

Canada is "moving quickly" to find a new hub to resupply its troops in Afghanistan as a result of its impending departure from Camp Mirage in the United Arab Emirates.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay says several potential locations have already been identified as Canada carries out negotiations with other countries.

The U.A.E. abruptly terminated an agreement earlier this month that had allowed the Canadian military to use the Camp Mirage base near Dubai.

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After Canada balked at demands to increase landing rights for U.A.E.'s airlines, the wealthy Gulf nation informed Ottawa it had a month to clear out of Mirage.

The U.A.E. says it will not extend an agreement for Canada to use the base as a logistics and supply point for its 2,750 troops in the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan.

That has also complicated the military's plans to return troops and equipment in Kandahar back to Canada come July, 2011, when the combat mission ends.

"There's negotiations happening right now between planners at my department as well as Foreign Affairs to secure an alternate location," Mr. MacKay said Sunday. "We have identified several potential locations that will replace the forward operating nature that Camp Mirage has provided for us."

Mr. MacKay said the issues over the use of Camp Mirage arose less than a week ago, which is why Canada is still discussing alternative locations.

"We're going to put the best interests of our country forward and ensure this has no operational impact," he said.

The U.A.E. has pushed hard to expand non-stop flights to Canada to serve major Indian and Pakistani markets, which have significant family and business ties to North America. Dubai-based Emirates and Etihad Airways in Abu Dhabi each run three flights a week to Canada and are aggressively seeking to expand long-haul flights.

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But Air Canada has argued there is no need for more flights from the U.A.E. and says it can handle the South Asian traffic through alliances with European airlines.

Mr. MacKay said it is a priority for him and the Prime Minister to work out a new deal without having any effect on Canada's operations in Afghanistan.

But he acknowledges that any new deal will come with a price tag.

"I'm not going to deny that there will be costs just as there's costs associated with any type of move. As far as what those countries are - I think we'll let those negotiations progress before we start naming other countries. We want to ensure the success of the operations and the success of the negotiations."

Mr. MacKay was in Calgary to announce that the government has contracted Calgary-based Harris Canada Inc. for avionics maintenance of its CF-18 fighter jets until their replacements are ready to fly.

Mr. MacKay said the contract allows Canada to keep the CF-18s flying until the new F-35 Lightning II arrives.

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The competitive contract, valued at $273.8-million, covers the repair, overhaul, engineering, management and life-cycle support of the electronic systems on the CF-18s.

"It is the central nervous system of the aircraft itself, while our pilots are the hearts and brains," Mr. MacKay said.

"The CF-18 will continue its invaluable service to Canada for at least another 10 years."

Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose said the contract will support high quality jobs in the area.

More than 40 full-time positions will be maintained in Calgary annually for the duration of the contract, a potential nine years.

The CF-18 fleet is scheduled to be retired and replaced by the F-35 fighter aircraft in 2020.

Captain Varinder Dhillon, who has flown the CF-18 for years, said the jet has had its day and he's not going to shed a tear when it is retired.

He said the new contract does make sense.

"Consolidating the many contractors that were providing services to the CF-18 to one here in Alberta makes sense so it's a lot easier," said Capt. Dhillon.

"I think it will provide cost savings and there will be a service hub here."

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