PARIS: President Francois Hollande said on Wednesday three French soldiers were killed in a helicopter accident in Libya during an intelligence-gathering mission in the North African state.
They are the first confirmed Western military casualties since it became known this year that special forces were operating on the ground in Libya.
“At this moment we are carrying out dangerous intelligence operations (in Libya),” Hollande said in a speech. “Three of our soldiers, who were involved in these operations, have been killed in a helicopter accident.”
Paris took a leading role in the NATO air campaign that helped rebels overthrow autocratic leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The country later descended into years of chaos.
French special forces in conjunction with Britain and the United States have been advising forces loyal to eastern Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, which have been battling Islamists and other opponents in Benghazi for more than two years. French aircraft have been conducting reconnaissance flights since December.
Libyan military officials would not comment on a report that the French nationals were in a helicopter that crashed near Benghazi on Sunday. Officials said at the time that four people died in the crash, all of them Libyan.
However, the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB), a recently formed force of Islamists and other fighters, claimed after the helicopter crash that it had shot the aircraft down, killing four people, according to a statement posted on social media accounts close to the group.
The statement said that the helicopter was an M135 belonging to Haftar’s forces and that two foreigners and two Libyans were killed when the group shot it down with a rocket. Pictures purporting to show the wreckage of the helicopter were also posted.
The BDB includes fighters pushed out of Benghazi by Haftar’s forces. The group launched a fresh campaign last month, south of the eastern city, to regain lost ground.
Western powers have been backing Libya’s unity government, hoping it will seek foreign support to confront Islamic State militants, deal with migrant flows from Libya to Europe and restore oil production to shore up the Libyan economy.