French President Francois Hollande admitted yesterday that three French Special Forces fighters were killed in a helicopter “accident” during an intelligence-gathering mission near Benghazi, Libya. The statement was the first acknowledgement by the French government that its forces are operating in the country. The helicopter belonged to Libyan Ground Forces (LGF), which allies with Libya’s eastern Tobruk Government. The French President refused to elaborate on how exactly the crash happened, leading to reports that the helicopter was shot down by an Islamist militia known as the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB). The BDB later claimed responsibility for the attack.
Libya has been in a chaotic civil war since 2014, after it held elections to replace their interim government; the interim government came to power after a coalition of NATO forces overthrew longtime dictator Moamar Ghaddafi in 2011. When the Islamist parties suffered heavy losses, they joined together and formed the General National Congress (GNC), which proceeded to stage a coup d’etat that forced the elected government to flee to the eastern city of Tobruk. There, the elected government continued their rule, declaring themselves the legitimate government of Libya. In addition to having the recognition of the UN and NATO, this government was actively supported by the UAE and Egypt, who saw the presence of a Muslim Brotherhood-controlled government on its border potentially destabilizing to its secular military government; the current Egyptian government under President Abdel Fateh al-Sisi overthrew Muslim Brotherhood President Muhammad Morsi in 2013.
The Islamist parties within the GNC seized control of the western part of the country, forming the National Salvation Government (NSG). This government was backed by a variety of Islamist factions and militias, including the Al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia, the jihadist group that is responsible for the 2012 attack on the U.S embassy in Benghazi, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens along with three other Americans. The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood was a leading faction within the Tripoli Government, backed by Turkey and Qatar, who have supported Islamist movements around the region. Qatar has also been accused of sending planes filled with weapons to the Islamist-led government.
In April, following months of negotiations, the U.N oversaw the creation of a “unity government”, with members of both factions defecting to form this regime. The Unity Government ultimately gained control of Tripoli, after the GNC announced that it was ceasing operations and ceded power to the U.N-recognized authority. But the Tobruk government, has refused to step down or recognize the unity government, raising questions over which government is and should be the legitimate regime.
The event has publicly exposed evidence of France’s long suspected cooperation with forces loyal to the Tobruk government, even while the EU has formally sanctioned Tobruk government leaders over failing to accept the Unity government.
Libya remains a key security issue for Europe, as it lies dangerously close to Italy, Cyprus, and Greece. In 2015, it was estimated that half a million people sailed from Libya to Europe. Exacerbated by the flow of migrants from across Africa, the existence of jihadist enclaves along the coast pose a security threat to the continent.