LONDON - Islamist-backed demonstrations, sparked by the revelation that a trio of French special forces troops were recently killed in Libya, could be a pretext for an attempt to replace Libya's U.N.-brokered "unity" government, experts fear.
Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) summoned the French ambassador Monday following a weekend of protests in Tripoli and elsewhere in the strife-torn North African country against the presence of French commandos.
Three French officers were killed last week in a helicopter crash in eastern Libya, prompting France to become the first Western country to acknowledge publicly that it has inserted small teams of special forces to assist rival Libyan factions to combat Islamic State extremists.
U.S. and British commandos are also believed to have been on the ground since late 2015 — the Americans based at two outposts near the cities of Benghazi and Misrata.
Neither the U.S. nor the British government has formally commented on whether their forces are present in Libya. In May, reports emerged of British commandos thwarting an IS suicide mission near the western Libyan town of Misrata. However, British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon told Britain's lawmakers that the government was not participating in or planning combat roles in Libya.
The weekend protests, fanned by Islamists — including the country's Grand Mufti Sheikh Sadek Al-Ghariani — saw demands morph quickly from calls for the withdrawal of French special forces and other foreign commandos to threats to replace the GNA with a supreme revolutionaries' council.
Protesters tried to force their way into the naval base on the outskirts of the Libyan capital used by the GNA, prompting Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj to flee. The protests are also backed by a militia chief from Misrata, Salah Badi, and Omar Hassi, the prime minister of one of the two competing governments set up in 2014 that the GNA was designed to replace.
‘Future of Libya at risk’
Fears are mounting among Western diplomats that the protests might presage a serious attempt by Islamists in western Libya to announce later this week a council to replace the GNA, which has struggled to establish its authority. That would further complicate already highly complex divisions, splitting Libya regionally as well as across town and tribal lines.
The government in the east, along with its military commander Gen. Khalifa Haftar, have so far refused to recognize the U.N.-backed GNA. Even so, Western special forces have also worked with militias loyal to Haftar — because, Western officials say privately, the priority has to be the fight against IS.
With worries mounting over the possibility of a supreme revolutionaries' council being set up in Tripoli, Jonathan Winer, the U.S. special envoy for Libya, tweeted Monday: "Future of #Libya at risk whenever anyone incites Libyans to fight one another instead of uniting against common enemy of foreign terrorists."
And the U.N.'s special representative for Libya, Martin Kobler, is urging all Libyans to "refrain from actions that could undermine Libya's democratic transition."
GNA officials insist the French did not coordinate the deployment of their commandos in Libya and, in the face of the anti-Western anger in western Libya, say they won't compromise on Libya's sovereignty.
The French ambassador, Antoine Sivan, who is based in neighboring Tunisia for security reasons, is expected to arrive in Libya in the next few days, according to the French foreign ministry.
Anti-IS Western operations in Libya have been an open secret for months, and widely reported by international and local media outlets. On Monday, the Middle East Eye news site interviewed militiamen from Misrata, who described the intelligence, logistical and even combat assistance they have been receiving from British soldiers in battles to oust jihadist fighters from the center of the coastal city of Sirte.
"They are not here all the time, but normally we see them every few days," said 26-year-old militiamen called Aimen.
He described how British soldiers were able to blow up a suicide bomber's vehicle as it careened toward them.
"I was fighting side by side with the British when they destroyed one of these," he said. "We were shooting at it with our all weapons, but even our missiles made no impact. But the British guys had a gun with bullets that melt through the armor."
Another young fighter told the news site: "Last week, they were here giving some intelligence and co-ordinates so we could advance, because they have a drone that they use to detect enemy positions."
The weekend's anti-GNA protests follow meetings between Libyan rivals in Tunis earlier this month, which were overseen by the U.N. Those three days of meetings, which focused on persuading the House of Representatives in eastern Libya to vote to accept the GNA's authority, appeared to make some progress. There had been hopes of a breakthrough — even of an initial agreement on the formation of a united Libyan army.
Western envoys piled on pressure and U.S. ambassador Winer warned fractious Libyans that they faced "the choice of finger-pointing or coming together on solutions."