French soldiers killed by Libyan Islamist militia

Islamist militia shoot down helicopter outside the eastern city of Benghazi, killing two French special forces troops

A French helicopter was shot down near Benghazi, killing three French commandos (file photo)
A French helicopter was shot down near Benghazi, killing three French commandos (file photo)

Three French special forces members have been killed after an Islamist militia, Defending Benghazi Brigade, downed a helicopter outside the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on Sunday.

The soldiers were killed while carrying out "dangerous intelligence operations", President Francois Hollande confirmed on Wednesday. 

Earlier French defence ministry spokesman Stephane Le Foll confirmed for the first time that its special forces were in Libya.

Defending Benghazi Brigade claimed the attack, saying it had used an SA-7 shoulder-fired missile and heavy machine guns to down the aircraft, which belonged to forces under renegade General Khalifa Hifter, the head of armed forces based in Libya's east, who they oppose.

The incident further fuels strong suspicions of western military cooperation with the Dignity Operation forces led by Haftar, who opposes the United Nations-backed and Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).

The reported French deaths come as Libyan rival factions are holding meetings in Tunisia over the weekend to search for a way to break the deadlock, including changes to the U.N.-brokered road map.

On Tuesday, negotiators came up with a joint statement asking the government for an action plan to solve the persistent energy crisis, power cuts, and cash shortage. It also said that the political factions' support to the government is "conditional" and depends on its success.

While France had previously said its warplanes were carrying out reconnaissance flights over Libya, this is the first formal confirmation that France has special forces inside the country.

Their presence was first reported by Le Monde newspaper in February but later denied by Libyan officials.

Le Monde also said that French intelligence officials were stationed inside Libya to help the fight against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

Benghazi was the birthplace of the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, but has since seen heavy violence between rival Islamist militias and Haftar's forces.

Since the overthrow of Gaddafi, there have been two rival parliaments. While the UN helped broker a deal in December to form a unity government, but the situation in the country did not improve.

The oil-rich country once had one of the highest standards of living in Africa with free healthcare and free education, but five years on from the uprising it is facing a financial crisis.

At the same time, militias, who hold considerable power across Libya, are split along regional, ethnic and local lines, creating a combustible mix and allowing ISIS to gain a foothold in the country.

Together with British and American teams, French special forces have set up an operation room in Benghazi's Banina air base.

While helping Hafter fight Islamic militants in the east, other teams are helping the maverick general's rivals in the city of Misrata to fight Islamic State militants in their stronghold of Sirte, officials said. In the meantime, militia forces loyal to the unity government have been battling ISIS militants in Sirte since May.