Thursday July 31st, 2008: OTTAWA - Canada will lease up to eight Russian-built helicopters to ferry supplies around the battlefield in Afghanistan until it gets new U.S. choppers, says Defence Minister Peter MacKay. It is a stopgap measure meant to get Canadian army supply convoys off the bomb-laced roads of Kandahar, where explosives have been taking an increasingly deadly toll. Securing helicopter transport was a principal condition of the Manley commission report last winter and a key caveat of Parliament's extension of the combat mission until 2011. The Conservative government was given until February 2009 to come up with the helicopters and a flight of unmanned surveillance planes. A $375 million deal to acquire six CH-47-D Chinook's from the U.S. Army has been worked out, but those heavy-lift aircraft will not arrive until late this year -- or early next. In the meantime, MacKay said the Defence Department has worked out a lease involving "six to eight" Russian-made Mi-8 choppers. The former Soviet-era helicopters "have similar capacity to a Chinook," MacKay told reporters Wednesday heading into the Conservative caucus summer retreat in Levis, Que. "So they're heavy-lift...They'll be used to transport materials along the same routes, performing much the same purpose (as) the Chinooks would." The Mi-8s are in fact considered a medium-lift helicopter and date back in their original design to the 1960s. They were a familiar sight in the skies of Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.
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