The French government said Wednesday that its missiles had been found in Libya on a base used by rebel forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, in an embarrassing admission that raises fresh questions about its role in the conflict.
Confirming a report in the New York Times, the defence ministry said in a statement that US-made Javelin missiles discovered in a camp south of Tripoli at the end of June had been purchased by France.
But it denied supplying them to rebel commander Haftar and breaching a UN arms embargo, saying French forces operating in the war-torn country had lost track of them after they were judged to be defective.
“Damaged and out-of-use, these weapons were being temporarily stocked in a warehouse ahead of their destruction,” the statement said. “They were not transferred to local forces.”
The anti-tank missiles, worth 170,000 dollars (150,000 euros) each, were seized when forces loyal to the UN-recognised government in Tripoli overran the rebel base in Gharyan, 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Tripoli.
Three of them, as well Chinese-made shells bearing the markings of the the United Arab Emirates (UAE), were shown off to journalists including AFP reporters on June 29.
The statement from the French ministry did not explain how the missiles had been lost and will likely increase suspicions that Paris is backing Haftar on the ground, while also giving him diplomatic support internationally.
France has publicly called for the UN arms embargo to be enforced, while an EU naval mission off the Libyan coast called Operation Sophia is trying to stop the flow of foreign weapons into the conflict.
French special forces and members of its DGSE intelligence service are known to be operating in Libya, which descended into chaos after a 2011 uprising and NATO-backed military campaign against late dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
“These weapons were for the protection of forces undertaking intelligence and counter-terror missions,” the French statement added.