Thirteen armed men with French diplomatic passports, who were detained in Tunisia last week while crossing from Libya, were providing logistical support to the forces of Libyan general Khalifa Haftar in his offensive on Tripoli, Tunisian sources have told Middle East Eye.
Paris dismissed the incident through its embassy in Tunis last week, saying that the individuals were a part of the security detail to “ensure the safety” of the country’s ambassador in Libya.
MEE has obtained photos of the squad’s passports – all men between their mid-20s and mid-30s. The group was stopped while attempting to cross into Tunisia through the coastal crossing of Ras Ajdir. They had arms and ammunition, according to Tunisian officials.
A separate group of European citizens was also intercepted by Tunisian authorities last week while trying to cross into the country from Libya by sea.
Allegations of French support for Haftar, including forces on the ground, are potentially embarrassing for France, especially after Paris expressed support for “the legitimate government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and the mediation of the UN”.
Last week, the European Union also recognised the government in Tripoli and German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned Haftar.
At the same time, the interior ministry in Tripoli accused Paris of supporting Haftar, suspending all security agreements with France.
After seizing much of the country’s east from various militias, Haftar, a former general backed by the United Arab Emirates and Russia, moved this month to capture Tripoli from the internationally recognised government there.
A Tunisian official, who spoke to MEE on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said Haftar had been planning to enter Tripoli “unopposed” after exploiting divisions in the pro-government camp, but things did not go as planned.
Before Haftar’s offensive on the Libyan capital, Mistrata militants had withdrawn from Tripoli, and Abdelhakim Belhaj, a rebel commander who played a decisive role in toppling Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, had disbanded his forces.
“So Haftar was hoping that by getting his people to come out, he could just walk in,” the Tunisian official said.
He added that Haftar timed his campaign with the transition in Algeria where former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was facing massive protests that led to his resignation earlier this month. Algiers had opposed the offensive on Tripoli.
“He thought Algeria would be too distracted with its own issues to mount any effective campaign against his,” the official said.
But competing militias in the Libyan capital unified their ranks to thwart Haftar’s plans.
“Haftar’s blitzkrieg did not work, so now it’s ‘Plan B’: indiscriminate attacks from the air on civilian targets,” he added.
The source said if the militias manage to “absorb Haftar’s attack”, they may put him in a difficult situation amid mounting international condemnation that will limit the air support he had previously received from the Emiratis.
“Mounting daylight air attacks is a sign of desperation,” the source said.
Armed Europeans try to cross from Libya to Tunisia
Tunisia’s defence minister says two separate incidents involved armed Europeans travelling from neighbouring Libya.
Tunisian authorities have stopped more than 20 armed Europeans attempting to cross into the country from neighbouring Libya, officials said on Tuesday.
“An armed group consisting of 13 French nationals attempted to cross the border in 4×4 vehicles with diplomatic license plates at the Ras Jedir crossing on Sunday,” said Defence Minister Abdelkareem Zubaidi.
The group tried to enter Tunisia on Sunday “under diplomatic cover, with arms and ammunition” he said.
According to the local Mosaique FM radio station, the group was denied entry into Tunisia after failing to disclose the entirety of its arms inventory.
The French embassy in Tunis said the individuals were members of a security detail attached to the French diplomatic mission in Libya.
“[They were] members of the French protection team that provides security protection to the French ambassador for Libya.”
“Given the current situation in Libya, one of the trips which the French embassy undertakes regularly between Tunis and Tripoli, was made by road,” the embassy said, without mentioning any arms seized.
It said the stop at the border was routine, and after an inventory of equipment, the detachment continued on its route.
In a separate incident, Zubaidi said 11 people of different European nationalities had recently tried to enter Tunisian waters from Libya in two rubber life boats.
“The Tunisian navy confiscated their weapons and handed them over to the National Guard,” Zubaidi said, without saying when exactly the incident had occurred.
Libya, which has been mired in chaos since the NATO-backed toppling of Gaddafi in 2011, has been split into rival eastern and western administrations since 2014.
The renegade General Khalifa Haftar, who commands forces loyal to Libya’s eastern-based government, launched an ambitious campaign in early April to capture Tripoli, where Libya’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) is based.
Analysts say Haftar’s push on the capital threatens to further destabilise the oil-rich country and reignite a full-blown civil war.
While France officially supports the Tripoli-based government, it has also provided Haftar with financial, military and intelligence support in recent years.
Mustafa Fetouri, an independent Libyan academic based in Paris, cast doubt on the official French explanation for the border incident.
“This particular incident is very unclear. The French claim that it is the guard of the embassy in Tripoli, but the building itself is closed, there are no operations there. The French government only recently allowed its employees, including the aid services, to go back to Libya,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It doesn’t make sense to say they are the guards of the embassy. It also doesn’t make sense to say they are actively involved with these operations helping Mr Haftar on the other side, because it would have been much safer for him just to take them to eastern Libya and they could fly out of the country from there.”