French troops’ presence in Libya adds to confusion
TUNIS - The death of French soldiers in a helicopter crash in eastern Libya sparked protests against the presence of Western troops, a revelation that could threaten the UN-backed Libyan unity government, inflame a violent power struggle between rival militias and undermine the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).
Thousands of radical Islamists took to the streets of Tripoli and other cities on July 21st to denounce what their spiritual leader called a “declaration of war” by France.
The Islamists have pledged to continue protests until they topple the UN-backed unity government led by Fayez al-Sarraj. Ongoing protests could undermine Sarraj’s attempts to unify the country and make a return to full-scale civil war more likely.
Three French soldiers from an elite military unit died July 17th when their helicopter crashed south of the eastern city of Benghazi, where forces loyal to Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar are fighting Islamist militants. A coalition of Islamists and other fighters near Benghazi said its forces shot down the helicopter.
French President François Hollande said the troops died taking part in “dangerous intelligence operations”, the first time France acknowledged its troops were in Libya.
Western countries, including France, Britain and the United States, have sent small teams of special forces to Libya to help combat Islamist militants, especially those loyal to ISIS, which controls the central city of Sirte. French troops have helped Haftar’s forces in the east, even as those forces reject Sarraj’s government in the west, which is also backed by Paris.
France took a leading role in a NATO air campaign that helped rebels overthrow autocratic leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. The country has since descended into chaos.
The Sarraj government denounced the French troop presence and said there could be “no compromise” over Libyan sovereignty.
Thousands of demonstrators marched through several Libyan cities to protest the French presence and what they said were revenge French air strikes that killed 13 Islamist fighters. Protesters called for the overthrow of the Sarraj government.
Sheikh Sadiq al-Ghariani, widely seen as the spiritual leader of the radical militias, said the presence of French troops was a declaration of war.
“Libyans must unite to fight the foreign attack,” he said. “The issue is crystal clear now that our country is being attacked by a foreign country.”