France confirms parachuting in arms to Libyan rebels
France parachuted in weapons to Libya's rebels to help them fight Moamer Gaddafi's forces in the west of the country, the French military confirmed Wednesday, dpa reported.
Military spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard told AFP news agency that France had dropped light arms and ammunition to Berber tribes fighting government forces in the Western Nafusa mountains in early June.
His remarks come as the rebels make ground in the west, where they said Wednesday they had seized a large arms depot.
Rebels told Al Jazeera broadcaster that the discovery of more arms was a tremendous morale boost to the fighters and that the find included two Russian tanks, among other items.
France's confirmation that it directly armed the rebels is the first such move by a Western country and underscores President Nicolas Sarkozy's desire to achieve a swift end to four months of fighting in the country.
Until now, only Arab states such as Qatar have directly armed the rebels, through the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
Le Figaro reported French planes had dropped "large quantities" of rocket launchers, assault rifles, machine guns and anti-tank missiles to the fighters to help them advance on the capital Tripoli.
According to sources quoted by Le Figaro, France was acting unilaterally.
"We began by dropping humanitarian aid: food, water and medical supplies," Burkhard told AFP.
"During the operation, the situation for the civilians on the ground worsened. We dropped arms and means of self-defence, mainly ammunition," he added. Most of the arms were "light infantry weapons of the rifle type" he said.
The mountains south of Tripoli are seen as the rebels best hope for staging a march on the capital.
French planes have a unique system for dropping weapons by attaching them to a small parachute that unfurls to cushion the landing.
AFP reported that the French decision followed a meeting in mid-April between Sarkozy and the rebel's military leader, General Abdelfatah Younis, and that some 40 tonnes of weapons were sent in total, including "a few light tanks" smuggled across the Tunisian border.
The move is likely to stir further criticism of the intervention in Libya. Critics of the campaign said it has long shifted from its stated aim of protecting Libyan civilians to trying to effect regime change.
It is not clear whether the United Nations resolution that authorized the intervention covers weapons supplies. The US has said it believes the resolution does provide for it. France had previously ruled it out.
After four months, the rebels have secured the country's second and third largest cities, Benghazi and Misurata.
Tripoli, which has seen only sporadic anti-Gaddafi protests that have been swiftly quelled, is their hardest get.
The rebels are now about 60 kilometres south of the city.