Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid a surprise pre-Christmas visit to Canadian troops in Mali on Saturday. He refused to say whether Canada will extend the mission past July.

Trudeau shared a turkey dinner with the soldiers stationed at Camp Castor near the Northern Mali city of Gao. He thanked them for their service and dropped off a hockey table, CTV’s Glen McGregor reports from Africa.

“We think often -- and we hear this from Canadians -- that Canada has a great history of peacekeeping," Trudeau told the soldiers at the hot and dusty camp.

“But it wasn't just because we were nice and polite,” he added. “It was always because we had consistently demonstrated the capacity to step up and punch well above our weight class -- to make a significant and positive impact wherever needed around the world."

The delegation, which has since left Mali, also included Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan and Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance. They were on the ground for about five hours, during which Trudeau also met with Malian president Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga. The trip was kept secret until after Trudeau’s departure due to security concerns.

Canada joined the dangerous United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali in June, with a one-year commitment. Romanian replacements are not expected to arrive in Mali until October.

Trudeau would not say Saturday whether he plans to extend the mission past July, or whether his decision to end the mission in the summer has anything to do with an election expected next fall.

“We are confident, and we are hearing from the UN that there is no concern about that gap being a problem," Trudeau told reporters in Mali. “We are very much focused on delivering the absolutely best support we can and we are doing that, and we're going to be working with our partners to ensure that the transition goes as smoothly as possible."

The Canadian Forces have eight helicopters and approximately 250 military personnel in the African country, which has been destabilized by poverty, drought and Islamic extremism since a civil conflict broke out in 2012. Dubbed Operation Presence, Canada’s primary mission in Mali is to provide “24/7 capability to medically evacuate UN forces by air.” So far, they have evacuated six UN peacekeepers and civilian workers. They have not shot at the enemy or been shot at.

A total of 177 peacekeepers have been killed since the international peacekeeping mission began in 2013.

The main contributors to the 15,000-strong UN force are nearby African countries. Bangladesh, China and Germany also have a significant presence.

“They are able to do more because… this extraordinarily professional group of Canadians are here to give them the support should an incident happen,” Trudeau said of Canada’s role in the international peacekeeping effort. "That level of assurance allows for the entire mission to be more effective."