Three French soldiers killed in Libya
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Three French soldiers have been killed in Libya, President François Hollande said Wednesday, in the first official confirmation that France has troops in the conflict-ridden North African state.
"At this moment we are carrying out dangerous intelligence operations [in Libya]," Hollande said in a speech. "Three of our soldiers, who were involved in these operations, have been killed in a helicopter accident."
Confirming the deaths, a statement by France's defence ministry lauded "the bravery and devotion of French military personnel who each day are carrying out dangerous missions against terrorists".
Earlier in the day, French government spokesman Stéphane Le Foll had acknowledged that special forces were operating in Libya, amid media reports of an incident involving French personnel in the country’s east.
"Special forces are there, of course, to help and to make sure France is present everywhere in the struggle against terrorists," Le Foll told reporters.
The statements by French officials come a day after Libyan sources told The Associated Press that a helicopter carrying French special forces had been shot down on Sunday outside the eastern city of Benghazi.
The incident highlights the secretive nature of Western military involvement in the North African country, which has been torn between rival militias, governments and parliaments.
Western powers are backing a new UN-sponsored Libyan unity government, hoping it will seek foreign support to confront Islamic State group (IS) militants, who have profited from the Libyan turmoil to seize a strip of land along the country’s central coastline.
While officials in Paris had so far remained tight-lipped about French involvement in Libya, the presence of French personnel tracking Islamist militants on the ground was an open secret, said FRANCE 24’s expert on jihadist networks Wassim Nasr.
"We’ve known since May that there are French forces in Benghazi to help fight the IS group, as we know there are British forces in Misrata,” he said.
Earlier this year, French newspaper Le Monde published a report claiming French special forces and intelligence commandos were engaged in covert operations against members of the IS group, in conjunction with US and British forces.
It said French President François Hollande had authorised "unofficial military action" by both an elite armed forces unit and the covert action service of the DGSE intelligence agency in the conflict-ridden North African state.
What Le Monde called "France's secret war in Libya" involved occasional targeted strikes against leaders of the ultra-radical Islamist group, prepared by discreet action on the ground, to try to slow its growth in Libya.
At the time, France’s defence ministry declined to comment on the substance of Le Monde's story but a source close to Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he had ordered an investigation into "breaches of national defence secrecy" to identify the sources of the report.
The ministry has previously confirmed that French aircraft recently conducted reconnaissance flights over Libya, where France took a leading role in a 2011 NATO air campaign that helped rebels overthrow Muammar Gaddafi's autocratic rule.
It has also confirmed that France has set up an advance military base in northern Niger on the border with Libya.
The oil-rich North African state slid into chaos after the uprising that led to Gaddafi’s ouster. The power and security vacuum left the country a breeding ground for militias, and militants including the IS group and al Qaeda affiliates.
Since 2014, Libya has been split between rival governments and parliaments based in the western and eastern regions, each backed by different militias and tribes. The UN brokered a deal in December, which tried to mend the rift by creating a presidency council and a unity government. The deal envisions an up to two-year-transitional period, followed by a vote on a draft constitution and then presidential or parliamentary elections.
However, the entire process has reached a deadlock, due to political jockeying and the government's inability to put together an action plan to provide basic services.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)