Libya’s UN-backed government has reacted strongly after France’s confirmation that its special forces have been operating in the country, which also sparked angry protests in the capital Tripoli against French military intervention.
The French government announced on Wednesday that three of its soldiers had been killed in a helicopter crash in eastern Libya during an intelligence gathering operation – the first time Paris acknowledged its presence in the oil-rich country.
In a strongly-worded statement late on Wednesday, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) said that it had asked France to explain the presence of its forces in the country.
“The Presidential Council expresses its deep discontent at the French presence in eastern Libya without coordination with the Council, which was declared by the government of France.”
There could be “no compromise” over Libyan sovereignty, the council added.
At the centre of the controversy is General Khalifa Haftar, an opponent of the UN-backed government who leads a large army fighting armed groups in eastern Libya.
If it is proved that the French government is backing him, then tensions could escalate amid increasing questions about the western role in Libya.
“This [France’s action] will destabilise the country. This is a sort of coup against the political process and against the democratic path chosen by the Libyan people,” Mansour Al Hasadi, a member of the GNA, told Al Jazeera.
“It is also against the political agreement sponsored by the UN, the international community and the Security Council.”
The presence of French troops in Libya was first reported by French newspaper Le Monde, but denied by Libyan officials.
On Tuesday, Libyan officials told The Associated Press news agency that an “Islamic militia” had shot down a helicopter near the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, killing two French officers, in an area called al-Magrun. French and Libyan officials have not provided information on where the third officer died.
Ahmed al-Mesmari, the spokesman for Haftar’s forces, told reporters in Benghazi on Wednesday that the French were gathering intelligence on an affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in Libya.
Mohamed Eljarh, a Libya analyst and Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Centre for the Middle East, said that it was “common knowledge” that western forces were operating in the east and west of Libya in non-combat roles, mostly in advising capacity.
“There have been air strikes by the Americans, and reportedly by the British, using drones – but not the French,” Eljarh told Al Jazeera.
“What is interesting is that the personnel were targeted in a helicopter near the frontlines. That is where it gets a little bit blurry – was part of their mission a combat role, or was it not?”
The confirmation of French special forces in Libya comes on the heels of the release of leaked tapes from the Benina air base, made public earlier this month, suggesting that British, French, Italian and US forces have been coordinating air strikes in support of Haftar.
Last year, Haftar launched a self-declared campaign to drive rebel fighters, including an al-Qaeda-affiliated group, from Libya’s second biggest city, Benghazi. He has refused to support the UN-backed government because his forces were once loyal to a rival government.