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Canada to Develop Military Disaster Relief Team

Ottawa, June 12 (RFE/RL) -- Canada is creating a military quick response team that will be available to aid victims of disasters around the world. The new squad will be called DART -- the Disaster Assistance Response Team.

Canada's Defense Minister David Collenette says "the complexity, severity and frequency of disasters are taxing relief agencies around the world, and the Canadian Forces have the unique capability and resources to assist in meeting these challenges."

Collenette says it takes up to 40 days for the international community to respond to crises, and DART will fill the gap during the critical period when no other help is available.

The new team will be made up of 180 people, including doctors, engineers, infantry soldiers and communications specialists to address what Collenette says are the "main needs in most emergency situations: medical care, potable water, power generation, disposal of explosives and searching for mines and providing emergency communications."

Canada has developed a history, says Collenette, of providing quick response teams to disaster areas in the past: filling the gap in 72 hours when Belgium pulled its officers out of Rwanda, providing soldiers to Haiti's peacekeeping force when the United Nations could not get full backing for the project, and helping with hurricane disaster relief in the Caribbean and Florida.

Collenette says the new force will be deployed only when it has been specifically requested by the United Nations or host country. It will be considered in operations where rapid humanitarian assistance is the primary objective and a military component would be an appropriate response. But, says Collenette, "if a civilian relief group is a more cost-effective choice, than DART would not be sent."

Some humanitarian agencies in Canada fear that military assistance will endanger their efforts or duplicate the work these groups are providing for less money than the military can. Gilles Sandre, head of International Services for the Canadian Red Cross, says: "DART is more suitable for reponse in natural disasters than to more complex emergencies, such as war zones where armed soldiers could lose their important neutral status."

Tim Pitt, executive director of Canada's branch of Doctors Without Borders, says "neutrality is the greatest protection we have in the field." He says: "There are situations where cooperation with United Nations forces infringes on the perception of the neutrality of aid workers and makes their work harder, with dire consequences. Governments should respond before a crisis, through diplomatic channels, rather than deploying 200 military guys after the kettle boils over." He says: "Crisis emergency medical intervention is our forte, and we don't need the military to come in and help us do the doctoring."

A spokesman for CARE Canada, Kevin McCort, says Canada "must listen to the advice of aid agencies" before sending in a rapid response team. He says the military "can help with logistics, since they can fly in enormous quantities of supplies."