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Libyan unity govt slams French 'violation' of its sovereignty

Stringer, AFP | Libyan protesters rally against the presence of French troops in the country on July 20, 2016, on Tripoli's Martyrs' Square.

Libya's UN-backed government has criticised the presence of French troops in the country after officials in Paris confirmed the deaths of three French soldiers near the eastern city of Benghazi.

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French President François Hollande said Wednesday the three soldiers had died in a helicopter crash during “dangerous intelligence operations”, marking the first official confirmation that French personnel is deployed in the conflict-ridden country.

French government spokesman Stéphane Le Foll acknowledged that special forces were operating in Libya, saying: "Special forces are there, of course, to help and to make sure France is present everywhere in the struggle against terrorists."

Soon after, Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), based in the capital Tripoli, said in a statement it had asked France for an explanation, describing the presence of French soldiers as a "violation" of its sovereignty.

The GNA said it was "displeased with the French government's announcement regarding the French presence" in the country, which has been torn between rival governments, parliaments and militias, and is grappling with a jihadist threat.

As news of French involvement spread, protesters rallied in Tripoli and other Libyan cities chanting anti-French slogans and calling for a tougher response from the GNA.

France took a leading role in a 2011 NATO air campaign that helped rebels overthrow Muammar Gaddafi's autocratic rule. The oil-rich country has since slipped into chaos, becoming a breeding ground for jihadist militants including the Islamic State (IS) group and al Qaeda affiliates.

Western powers are backing the new UN-sponsored unity government, hoping it will seek foreign support to confront IS group militants, who have profited from the Libyan turmoil to seize a strip of land along the country’s central coastline.

Experts have been reporting for months that special forces units from countries including France, Britain and the United States are on the ground in western and eastern Libya, helping to fight jihadist groups.

The death of three French soldiers on Sunday appears to confirm suspicions that France is working alongside forces loyal to Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, who is battling Islamist militants in the Benghazi area and has refused to back the GNA in Tripoli.

A military spokesman from Haftar's forces in eastern Libya said the three French soldiers had died when their helicopter came down south of Benghazi on Sunday.

Hollande called the helicopter crash an accident, but an Islamist-led group fighting Haftar’s troops claimed it had shot the helicopter down.

FRANCE 24’s expert on jihadist networks, Wassim Nasr, said the incident highlighted an apparent contradiction in France’s Libya policy.

“France supports the legitimate, internationally recognised government in Tripoli, which is not on very good terms with General Haftar,” Nasr explained. “But the fact that French forces are present in Benghazi shows they are necessarily with General Haftar in the fight against jihadist networks.”

Nasr said the contradiction was indicative of both “the complexity of the Libyan situation” and “France’s determination to combat jihadists wherever they are”.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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