Dubai: Canadian troops are pulling out of a military base in the United Arab Emirates that supports their mission in Afghanistan amid an ongoing dispute over airline landing rights, officials said on Monday.
The departure follows years of wrangling over requests from the Arab Gulf nation to boost the number of long-haul routes its fast-growing state carriers can operate into Canadian airports.
Canada says the base pullout won`t hurt its contribution to NATO`s mission in Afghanistan, where the Canadians are due to end their mission in 2011.
But the facility, known as Camp Mirage, was expected to play an important role in the withdrawal of Canadian troops and equipment from Afghanistan. Losing access to the base could complicate those plans.
Canada had a years-old right to Camp Mirage under an agreement that expired in June, according to an Emirati official familiar with the negotiations.
The official, who insisted on anonymity as a condition for speaking about the matter, said the agreement was extended through the end of September "in a show of goodwill" as the two countries worked to hammer out a deal that included landing right concessions.
"That show of goodwill was not reciprocated on the Canadian side," the official said.
A Canadian government official, who wasn`t authorised to discuss the matter with the media and also spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed the pullout and said Canadian troops are working on a contingency plan to relocate military assets stationed at the base.
Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay said the military was assessing "various options" as alternatives, The Canadian Press reported.
"We`ll find other ways to support this mission through other hubs in the region,`` MacKay said during a two-day tour of Kandahar, where Canadian troops are concentrated.
UAE airlines Emirates and Etihad each run three flights a week to Canada. The two carriers are growing rapidly in large part by launching long-haul routes to cities across the globe that funnel travellers to their hubs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi for connecting flights.
The UAE says more flights should be allowed into Canada to keep up with demand.
But Air Canada has argued against increasing the flights, saying there is very little passenger traffic originating from the UAE and that the airlines are merely taking Canadians to third countries with stopovers in the Gulf.
Both Emirates and Etihad declined to comment on the dispute yesterday. Air Canada didn`t respond to requests for comment.
The UAE`s ambassador to Ottawa, Mohammed Abdullah al-Ghafli, said it was unfortunate negotiations over landing rights had become "so protracted and frustrating”. In an e-mailed statement, he said 25,000 Canadians live in the UAE, and that the country is Canada`s largest trading partner in the Middle East.
"The UAE entered negotiations in good faith on the understanding that a solution would be reached and that constructive ideas would be brought to the negotiating table. The fact that this has not come about undoubtedly affects the bilateral relationship," he said.
Word of the Canadian pullout comes just days after the UAE dropped its threat to ban key data features on BlackBerrys, the popular handsets made by Research in Motion Ltd, one of Canada`s most prominent technology companies.
Camp Mirage is widely believed to be located at al-Minhad Air Base outside Dubai. Canada and a number of other US allies use the facility as a logistical and supply site for operations in and out of Afghanistan.
Canada has about 2,900 troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led mission.