The French military has confirmed that it air dropped weapons in June to Libyan rebels fighting in the highlands south of the capital.
Colonel Thierry Burkhard, a spokesman 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 Tripoli.
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.
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.
Rifles and ammunition
Burkhard 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.
Obama says Congress making a ‘fuss’
Responding to domestic critics of America’s role in the intervention, President Barack Obama told reporters at a White House news conference that politicians in Congress were making a “fuss” and “noise” for political reasons.
“This operation is limited in time and in scope. So I said to the American people, here’s our narrow mission and we carried out that narrow mission in exemplary fashion,” Obama said.
A number of Republican and Democratic legislators say Obama should have consulted Congress before involving US troops. Some believe he has violated the Vietnam-era War Powers Resolution, which requires the president to seek Congressional approval within 60 days after the start of “hostilities”. Obama has argued that the US air campaign in Libya does not amount to “hostilities”.
“I have had all the members of Congress over to talk about it,” Obama said. “I think such a consultation is entirely appropriate. But do I think our actions in any way violate the War Powers Resolution? No.”
Not one US soldier has died or been injured by enemy gunfire, Obama said, and “there’s no risks of additional escalation.”
But he seemed to allow that the mission was open-ended.
“As long as Gaddafi is still presenting himself as the head of the Libyan government and as long as he still controls large numbers of troops, the Libyan people will be in danger of counter-offensives and retribution,” he said.
“I think it would be hard for us to feel confident that the Libyan people are going to be protected unless he steps down.”
Al Jazeera and Agencies