PARIS (AFP) – The French government said yesterday that its missiles had been found in Libya on a base used by rebel forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, in an embarrassing admission that raises fresh questions about its role in the conflict.
Confirming a report in the New York Times, the Defence Ministry said in a statement that United States (US)-made Javelin missiles discovered in a camp south of Tripoli at the end of June had been purchased by France.
But it denied supplying them to rebel commander Haftar and breaching a United Nations (UN) arms embargo, saying French forces operating in the war-torn country had lost track of them after they were judged to be defective.
“Damaged and out-of-use, these weapons were being temporarily stocked in a warehouse ahead of their destruction,” the statement said. “They were not transferred to local forces.”
The anti-tank missiles, worth USD170,000 (EUR150,000) each, were seized when forces loyal to the UN-recognised government in Tripoli overran the rebel base in Gharyan, 100 kilometres south of Tripoli.
Three of them, as well Chinese-made shells bearing the markings of the the United Arab Emirates (UAE), were shown off to journalists including AFP reporters on June 29.
The statement from the French ministry did not explain how the missiles had been lost and will likely increase suspicions that Paris is backing Haftar on the ground, while also giving him diplomatic support internationally.
France has publicly called for the UN arms embargo to be enforced, while an EU naval mission off the Libyan coast called Operation Sophia is trying to stop the flow of foreign weapons into the conflict.
French special forces and members of its DGSE intelligence service are known to be operating in Libya, which descended into chaos after a 2011 uprising and NATO-backed military campaign against late dictator Muammar Gadaffi.
“These weapons were for the protection of forces undertaking intelligence and counter-terror missions,” the French statement added.
The Libyan conflict has drawn in a range of regional and international actors who are all competing for influence.
Analysts said Haftar has been backed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Russia and France during offensives against militias that have brought most of the country under his control.
But he has been branded a warlord and dictator-in-the-making by his opponents and on April 4 he launched an offensive on Tripoli seeking to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
The fighting has claimed at least 1,000 lives and displaced tens of thousands of people.