TRIPOLI – France’s admission that it owned sophisticated U.S.-made missiles found at a Libyan base seized from strongman Khalifa Hifter’s forces indicates it backs his offensive to seize the capital, the interior minister of Libya’s internationally recognized government said.
The Javelin anti-tank missiles were uncovered when government forces retook Gharyan from Hifter in late June, a surprise setback for the eastern commander who’d been using the city as a forward operating base for his campaign to take Tripoli. After wide-ranging speculation over who’d supplied the weapons, France last week acknowledged ownership and said the missiles were left behind by one of its counterterrorism teams and were no longer operational.
Speaking in an interview in the Libyan city of Misrata, Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha disputed France’s claim that the missiles were inoperable and said his government has asked experts from the United Nations and U.S. to examine the weapons to confirm they are in working order.
“The dung leads to the camel,” Bashagha said, quoting an Arab proverb. “France implicated itself when it said the Javelins were with a French security team. If the Javelins belonged to a French security team, that means France has admitted it was present militarily and officially in Gharyan to support Hifter.”
Hifter’s campaign has ground to a halt on Tripoli’s outskirts, with the fighting leaving at least 1,000 people dead and regional powers backing either side in the Middle East’s latest struggle for supremacy.
Libya splintered in the aftermath of the NATO-backed overthrow of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 and two rival administrations and myriad militias are vying for control. Hifter’s eastern-based forces swept through the south earlier this year before setting their sights on the capital.
France’s Defense Ministry told Bloomberg on Sunday that it was “not going to react through the press to this or that reaction.” It then repeated last week’s statement that the weapons “were intended for the self-protection of a French detachment deployed for counterterrorism intelligence purposes.”
France, while seen as supportive of Hifter, also recognizes the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli and has signed security pacts with its interior ministry. The discovery of the Javelins had initially raised questions over whether a U.S. ally had broken a sales agreement with Washington by transferring the missiles directly to Libyan fighters.
Bashagha said a French counterterrorism team had been present in western Libya and cooperating with a military commander from the Tripoli-based government. The team left with all its equipment shortly after Hifter began his offensive in early April, he said.
Another French team left by sea, and both groups took all their weapons, Bashagha said. France had denied having any military presence in Gharyan.
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