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Libyan rebel leader denies receiving weapons from France

A French newspaper quotes a military official as saying that assault rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and anti-tank missiles were airlifted to rebels in the western mountains. But Col. Mokhtar Milad Fernana, overall commander of the rebel forces, says his men never received such arms.

June 30, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi | Los Angeles Times
  • New recruits by Libyan rebel forces use guns and explosives as they take part in a three-week course at a training facility for rebel fighters in Benghazi.
New recruits by Libyan rebel forces use guns and explosives as they take… (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters )

Reporting from Zintan, Libya — Reports that France has been secretly supplying weapons to Libyan rebels engaged in daily battles with Moammar Kadafi's forces in the Nafusa Mountains stunned the world. It also surprised the overall commander of the rebel forces, who said Thursday that his men had never received any such weapons.

"Whoever gave us these arms should come here and tell us where he put them," said Col. Mokhtar Milad Fernana.

Although the front in eastern Libya has grounded to a stalemate, rebels in the mountainous region in the west appear to be gaining momentum in their fight against Kadafi, as they regularly capture towns and villages that were under his control.

Interactive timeline: Rebellion in Libya

Earlier in the week, rebel forces captured a desert arms depot filled with military vehicles, ammunition for rockets and large-caliber weapons they have used to fend off Kadafi. Rebels are attempting to push against Kadafi's forces east toward the town of Gharyan and northward toward the coastal areas near Zawiyah.

A French military official in Paris confirmed Wednesday that weapons had been dropped to the rebels in western Libya after the French newspaper Le Figaro, citing an intelligence memo and unnamed officials, said France airlifted crates full of assault rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and Milan anti-tank missiles to rebels in the western mountains.

A French military spokesperson later described the arms as "light infantry weapons of the rifle type" dropped over several days "so that civilians would not be massacred."

"We began by dropping humanitarian aid: food, water and medical supplies," Col. Thierry Burkhard, spokesman for the French general staff, told Agence France-Presse. "During the operation, the situation for the civilians on the ground worsened. We dropped arms and means of self-defense, mainly ammunition."

But Fernana, who has commanded the rebel forces since he was elected leader of the region's various military councils on March 15, said he had not heard of any such weapons drops, even though he is in constant contact with all the mountain range's military commanders and meets weekly with them in Zintan, home to the local command.

Fernana said he contacted his associates across the region immediately after hearing reports of the French arms drops on Arab television channels, and discovered that it was news to them, as well.

He said the rebels have transformed a long stretch of highway into a makeshift runway, with markings for airplanes, and have already landed one plane as a test. He welcomed any international help, but reiterated that they haven't received any weapons from the French.

"As far as the military council is concerned," Fernana said, "we didn't hear anything."

He went on to suggest that France was engaging in psychological warfare to pressure Kadafi.

"They're fighting more of an information war," he said. "They need to fight Kadafi."

Meanwhile, Libyan state television reported fresh NATO airstrikes in the Zawiya district west of the capital, where rebels are advancing from the western mountains into the town of Bir Ghanem.

"A military source has said that the crusader NATO aggression yesterday night bombed a gate to facilitate the movement of traffic belonging to public security in the area of Bir Ghanem in Zawiyah, which left a number of people martyred and injured and destroyed a number of citizens' cars," Libyan state television reported.

daragahi@latimes.com

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