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French warplane bombed Libya militias after French deaths

By AP - Jul 21,2016 - Last updated at Jul 21,2016

A fighter of Libyan forces allied with the UN-backed government fires a weapon during a battle with Daesh fighters in Sirte, Libya, on Thursday (Reuters photo)

BENGHAZI, Libya — A French warplane bombed militia positions outside the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi this week after the killings of French officers in the area, two Libyan officials said on Thursday.

A member of the militia said that the bombings took place Wednesday and killed least 16 militiamen and destroyed their weapons. The two military officials gave no casualty figures. All three spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to the media.

The killings of the French, which took place on Sunday and which were first reported by the AP, prompted the French defence ministry to confirm on Wednesday that it lost three officers in eastern Libya. It was the first time France has said its forces operate in eastern Libya.

The acknowledgment underscored the complexities of Libya's conflict, with its rival political factions and a myriad of militias, and also embarrassed France because it exposed the French in eastern Libya are fighting alongside Brig. Gen. Khalifa Hifter — a bitter opponent of the UN-backed unity government based in the Libyan capital of Tripoli.

The two Libyan officials said the French bombings were in retaliation for the deaths of the French special forces. The bombings targeted a district called Al Magrun and its surroundings east of Benghazi, where Hifter has been fighting the Islamist militias known as Benghazi Defence Brigade, they said. Hifter has also for the past two years fought an Al Qaeda-linked group in Benghazi.

France did not immediately confirm the bombings, which the two Libyan officials said forced the militias to retreat toward the town of Ajdabiya, west of Benghazi.

The Red Crescent in Libya said Thursday that it retrieved a total of 17 bodies from districts bombed east of Benghazi.

Ahmed Al Mesmari, the spokesman for Hifter's forces, told reporters in Benghazi on Wednesday that the French were gathering intelligence on the Daesh affiliate in Libya when the helicopter they were one was downed by the militias.

He claimed the fight against the militias was going well, saying the "the enemy retreated after heavy losses in their ranks" and was now "cowering in the desert". 

After the 2011 ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Qadhafi 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 UN 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-recognised 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-Islamic forces under Hifter's command.

For the past two years, foreign missions and military experts have joined two rival sides in Libya. Apart from the French, US and British forces have also reportedly been involved with different rival armed groups and political factions in Libya.

Libya's pro-government militias — mainly from the western city of Misrata — have been waging a two-month offensive against the Daesh group in the militants' last bastion in Sirte, a city on the Mediterranean. Reports have suggested that British forces are involved in the anti-Daesh assault while American warplanes have struck several Daesh positions in the western city of Sabratha and the eastern town of Ajdabiya.

Dodging questions as to why French special forces are 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 UN-backed unity government in Tripoli, Nadal added.

On 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”.

 

A Libyan militia known as Oil Installation Guards, which is in charge of vital oil terminals, issued a statement warning France of "becoming a party that fuels conflict by supporting one side against the other”.

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