BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — The U.N.-brokered government in Libya denounced France’s military involvement in the country, shortly after the French acknowledged that their special forces were operating in the war-wrecked North African nation.
France on Thursday reiterated its support to the unity government in Tripoli, just a day after it had confirmed that three of its soldiers were killed in eastern Libya — the first time the French government had acknowledged its presence in the oil-rich country.
The acknowledgment was also an embarrassment for France because it exposed that the French forces are in eastern Libya, fighting alongside Brig. Gen. Khalifa Hifter — a bitter opponent of the Tripoli-based U.N.-backed unity government.
Hifter has also for the past two years has been fighting Islamic militias, including an al-Qaida-affiliated group in Benghazi.
On Tuesday, Libyan officials first told The Associated Press that an Islamic militia had shot down a helicopter near the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, killing two French officers, in an area called al-Magrun, west of Benghazi. French and Libyan officials have not provided information on where the third officer died.
Ahmed al-Mesmari, the spokesman for Hifter’s forces, told reporters in Benghazi on Wednesday that the French were gathering intelligence on the Islamic State affiliate in Libya.
The deaths of the French officers reveal secretive Western military cooperation with the anti-Islamist eastern forces opposed to the U.N.-brokered government and underscored international community’s contradictions where foreign military forces are siding by rival militias and forces in Libya.
Also Wednesday, hundreds of protesters demonstrated in Tripoli against France’s involvement in Libya, burning the French flag and calling for attacks on French business interests in Libya. Al-Sadeq al-Ghariyani, an ultraconservative cleric, denounced France’s involvement as “foreign invasion.”
Dodging an explanation as to why French special forces are operating in Libya, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said on Thursday that “support for the Government of National Accord is a priority for France.”
“France encourages all Libyan forces to be placed under the authority of the government to participate in the recovery of the country and the fight against terrorism,” Nadal added.
After the 2011 ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi by NATO-backed rebels, Libya slid into chaos and years later, it split into two governments and parliaments, each backed by a loose array of militias and tribes. In December, a U.N. deal created a new unity government and presidency council, aiming to heal the rift and unite Libyan militias and forces under a joint command.
However, the new government has been facing multiple challenges and resistance from various groups. According to the deal, Libya’s internationally-recognized parliament must give a vote of confidence to the new government but it has so far failed to do so, causing political deadlock. That parliament also supports the anti-Islamist forces under Hifter’s command.
For the past two years, foreign missions and military experts have joined the two rival sides.
Meanwhile, Libya’s pro-government militias — mainly from the western city of Misrata — have been waging a two-month offensive against the Islamic State group in the militants’ last bastion in Sirte, a city on the Mediterranean. Reports have suggested that British forces are involved in the anti-IS assault while American warplanes have struck several IS positions in the western city of Sabratha and the eastern town of Ajdabiya.
Associated Press Writer Thomas Adamson in Paris contributed to this report.