The Harper government moved Thursday to quash Defence Minister Peter MacKay's assertion that Canada is considering lifting a ban on arms sales to Pakistan, asserting that it has no plan to allow military exports to resume.
It appeared to be an embarrassing contradiction of Mr. MacKay, who three days ago told The Globe and Mail that the Conservatives are "contemplating" an end to the 11-year-old ban.
But a government source said that as recently as a few days ago the issue was slated to go to the federal cabinet to be discussed. And Pakistan's diplomats in Canada say that after years-long efforts to get Canada to lift the ban, diplomats told them within the past two weeks it was being considered.
Still, one day after a senior Indian diplomat voiced concerns about a resumption of arms sales to neighbouring Pakistan, the government moved to squelch the talk by insisting such a move is not on the drawing board. An aide to Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said the ban will not be lifted.
"Canada's policy regarding military exports to Pakistan remains unchanged," said Catherine Loubier, Mr. Cannon's communications director.
She added: "Was it considered? No. There are no plans to lift restrictions on the arms sales ban with Pakistan."
The statements appeared to be a direct contradiction of the comments that Mr. MacKay made on Tuesday. At that time, he told The Globe from Islamabad, where he met Pakistan's President, Prime Minister and senior ministers, that he was asked to lift the arms sale ban. "We're contemplating that," Mr. MacKay said.
A government source said it was an issue being considered inside government, and was slated to be discussed by the cabinet. Government would look at a proposal to lift the ban on a case-by-case basis.
Pakistan's deputy high commissioner, Naela Chohan, said that after lengthy efforts of pushing for the ban to be lifted, Canadian diplomats told her in the past two weeks that Ottawa was considering doing so.
"I had been hearing it from my diplomatic contacts," she said. "That's my information. If there has been any development or change on that, I haven't [had that]conveyed officially."
Pakistan considers the ban discriminatory, she said, because Canada instituted bans on both Pakistan and India in 1998, but lifted the one on arms sales to India in 2003.
"Pakistan is a partner to Canada in this effort to eradicate the international menace of terrorism and extremism. And we need all the equipment to further enhance the capacity of our military and defence forces. And for that we need this ban to be lifted," Ms. Chohan said.
"We need support. Just by saying you're supporting us is not enough. We need tangible support."
Although India raised concerns about lifting of the ban, the opposition Liberals here in Canada agreed that a resumption of arms sales should be considered.
Pakistan is in the midst of a heavy offensive against Taliban insurgents in the Swat valley and surrounding areas, which has displaced 1.5 million residents who fled the fighting.
Mr. MacKay said Tuesday that Pakistan appears to have rallied the public to back a sustained effort to uproot Taliban fighters and al-Qaeda factions - after years when the U.S. and Western countries questioned the country's commitment.
A senior Indian diplomat in Canada has raised concerns that Pakistan has in the past used military aid received from the U.S. and others to beef up its military along the border with India, rather than to target insurgents.
The Harper government has made extensive efforts to improve ties with India. Last year, Canada shifted its policy on nuclear non-proliferation to help India win access to the international trade in civilian nuclear materials in a decision of the Nuclear Suppliers Group of countries.
India was cut off from access after it conducted a test nuclear explosion in 1974. Since last year's decision, several Canadian ministers have trooped to New Delhi to seize advantage from warming relations.
In Ottawa, the NDP opposed the lifting of the arms-sales ban to Pakistan, arguing it would only create regional tensions with India, while Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said it should be carefully considered, given Pakistan's renewed commitment to fighting the Taliban.
With a report from Brian Laghi