The death of three French Special Forces soldiers in Libya has prompted the first public acknowledgement by France that its troops are involved in “dangerous intelligence operations” in the North African country. The acknowledgement was made on Wednesday in an official statement issued by Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s Minister of Defense. In the statement, Le Drian said he “regretted the loss of three French officers who expired while on mission in Libya”. The acknowledgement came less than 24 hours after the Associated Press news agency claimed that a helicopter carrying French troops had been shot down in Libya. The report quoted unnamed Libyan officials as saying that the helicopter had been shot down by an Islamist militia in the outskirts of the city of Benghazi, in eastern Libya.
Paris has previously acknowledged the presence of French warplanes in Libya, which it says are only involved in reconnaissance operations. It is also known that France has set up a forward operating base in Niger, close to the southern Libyan border. But the French government has never before acknowledged the presence of French troops or intelligence operatives on Libyan soil.
During the uprising that deposed longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, there were persistent rumors of daring operations by French commandos and intelligence operatives, which were never confirmed. In February of this year, French newspaper Le Monde claimed that French troops and spies were active in Libya. In a leading article titled “France’s Secret War in Libya”, the French daily said that President François Hollande had secretly authorized operations by elite special forces and officers of the DGSE, France’s General Directorate for External Security. But France’s Defense Ministry refused to comment on Le Monde’s allegations, while Laurent Fabius, who was then France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, denied the newspaper’s claims, saying that France did not have the means to intervene militarily in Libya.
Speaking shortly after Wednesday’s disclosure by the Defense Ministry, President Hollande said the three special forces soldiers had died while “carrying out perilous intelligence operations” in Libya. In a subsequent interview on the Paris-based France Info Radio, French government spokesman Stephane Le Foll admitted that French operatives are indeed active in Libya. Asked whether the Defense Ministry’s statement offered such an acknowledgement, Le Foll responded: “French special forces are [in Libya], naturally, to offer assistance and to ensure that France has a presence wherever the struggle against international terrorism is taking place”.