The French military has confirmed that it air dropped weapons early this month to Libyan rebels fighting in the western part of the country.
Colonel Thierry Burkhard, a spokesperson for the French general staff, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that the military had dropped assault rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers to groups of unarmed civilians it deemed to be at risk.
Earlier in the day, the Le Figaro newspaper and AFP news agency reported that France had dropped several tonnes of arms, including Milan anti-tank rockets and light armoured vehicles.
The air drops arrived somewhere in rebel-held towns in the Nafusa mountains, which run east-west from the Tunisian border around 100km south of capital Tripoli.
That admission by France has already provoked a reaction from the African Union (AU).
“What worries us is not who is giving what, but simply that weapons are being distributed by all parties and to all parties. We already have proof that these weapons are in the hands of al-Qaeda, of traffickers,” Jean Ping, the AU Commissioner, said.
“These weapons will contribute to the destabilisation of African states.”
Rebels control most of the Nafusa up to the town of Yafran, while regime forces loyal to leader Muammar Gaddafi still hold Gharyan, a key town that lies astride the north-south road to the capital.
UN resolution mandate
On March 19, a coalition of NATO countries launched a military intervention in Libya under the mandate of a United Nations Security Council resolution aimed at protecting civilians from the onslaught launched by Gaddafi after mass protests broke out against his rule in mid-February.
The Security Council resolution established a no-fly zone, asset freeze and arms embargo on Libya and various regime entities.
The terms of the Nato mission in Libya have provoked controversy for months. The UN resolution 1973 authorising action says the NATO operation is to protect civilians, but France’s admission raises major questions about how far that mandate goes.
Part of the UN resolution allows NATO the legal ability to provide weapons for protection or defence, but if those weapons are then used for attack, the rebels and those arming them could be criminally liable.
Donald Rothwell, a professor of international law at the Australian National University, told Al Jazeera that France’s arms supplying operations might arguably fall within the mandate.
“I think one of the key issues are whether the weapons supplied by the French are defensive weapons, or whether they’re supplied with offensive use in mind,” he said.
Rifles and ammunition
The French military spokesperson said France had become aware in early June that rebel-held villages had come under pressure from loyalist forces.
“We began by dropping humanitarian aid: food, water and medical supplies,” he told the AFP news agency.
“During the operation, the situation for the civilians on the ground worsened. We dropped arms and means of self-defence, mainly ammunition.”
Burkhard described the arms as “light infantry weapons of the rifle type” and said the drops were carried out over several days “so that civilians would not be massacred”.
Though Burkhard framed the French weapons supplies as a method of protecting civilians in accordance with the UN mandate, it was still unclear whether such air drops violated the arms embargo.
NATO countries such as the United States have tried to emphasise that they are not taking sides in the conflict and that their strikes on Gaddafi’s armour, anti-aircraft emplacements and command bunkers are only meant to protect civilians.
They have denied trying to kill Gaddafi, though US Admiral Samuel Locklear, a NATO commander in Naples, Italy, reportedly told a visiting US congressman in May that they were actively targeting and trying to kill him.
‘Light armoured cars’
According to Le Figaro, which said it had seen a secret intelligence memo and talked to well-placed officials, the drops were designed to help rebel fighters encircle Tripoli and encourage a popular revolt in the city itself.
“If the rebels can get to the outskirts of Tripoli, the capital will take the chance to rise against [Gaddafi],” said an official quoted in the report.
“The regime’s mercenaries are no longer getting paid and are scarcely getting fed. There’s a severe fuel shortage, the population has had enough.”
A well-placed non-government source told the AFP that 40 tonnes of weapons including “light armoured cars” had been delivered to rebels in western Libya.
France has taken a leading role in organising international support for the uprising against Gaddafi’s four-decade-old rule, and French and British jets are spearheading a NATO-led air campaign targeting his forces.
Rebel forces are mainly based in Benghazi in the east of the country, and hold a besieged enclave supplied by sea in the western coastal town of Misrata, but have been unable to mount a convincing advance on the capital.
France confirms arms supply to Libya rebels