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WASHINGTON -- A cache of powerful American missiles was sold to France before ending up in the hands of rebel fighters loyal to Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter, according to two U.S. officials.

The four Javelin anti-tank missiles, which cost more than $170,000 each and are usually sold only to close U.S. allies, were recovered last month by Libyan government forces during a raid on a rebel camp in Gheryan, a town in the mountains south of Tripoli. The rebels are seeking to overthrow the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli.

A French military adviser denied Tuesday that the weapons were transferred to Hifter, which would violate the sales agreement with the United States as well as a U.N. arms embargo. It would also put Washington at odds over Libya policy with France, a staunch NATO partner and ally in other hot spots like West Africa.

Over the past several days, the State Department investigated the origins of the missiles, using their serial numbers and other information, and concluded that they had originally been sold to France, which has been a strong supporter of Hifter. France agreed to buy up to 260 Javelins from the United States in 2010, according to the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency.

The two U.S. officials said the State Department briefed House and Senate foreign relations committees Monday about its conclusion that the missiles were sold to France. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the classified briefing. Spokesmen for the congressional committees and the State Department declined to comment.

On Tuesday, an adviser to the French armed forces minister confirmed that the Javelin missiles found in Gheryan belonged to French forces but said they were damaged and no longer usable. The adviser said the missiles were being temporarily stored in a warehouse awaiting destruction and were not transferred to local forces.

The French adviser, who under his government's policy was not authorized to be identified by name to discuss the issue, said the weapons were among those that were bought from the United States in 2010 and were intended to protect French troops deployed in Libya for intelligence and counterterrorism operations.

He said they did not violate arms embargoes in Libya, calling it out of the question that the missiles would be sold or otherwise transferred to "anybody" in Libya.

But that account did not explain how the U.S. weapons ended up in a rebel compound near the front lines of a battle that the United Nations said Thursday has led to over 1,000 deaths since April, including 106 civilians.

France has deployed special forces troops to Libya, including three who were killed in 2016. But they have largely been based in the east of the country, far from Tripoli, where the fighting has been concentrated.

The issue likely will be raised today when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hears testimony from R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state in the bureau of political-military affairs. Cooper has defended the emergency declaration by President Donald Trump's administration that enabled it to push through arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and he is scheduled to testify about the use of that declaration today.

The discovery of the Javelin missiles confirmed fears that foreign sponsorship on all sides of Libya's conflict is amplifying the fighting.

U.N. inspectors have documented numerous breaches of the embargo by the United Arab Emirates, which has stationed warplanes on an air base that it runs in eastern Libya, in territory controlled by Hifter. More recently, experts say, the UAE has stepped up its military assistance to Hifter as he presses his assault on Tripoli, including armed Chinese drones and a Russian-made surface-to-air missile system.

On the U.N.-backed side of the war, Qatar and Turkey have funded Islamic factions in Libya since 2011. U.S. officials say the Qataris have scaled back their involvement in recent years, but Turkey has ramped up its own engagement, including sending armed drones and armored vehicles to defend the capital against attack by Hifter.

Hifter, a veteran general, says he is determined to restore stability to Libya, which slid into chaos after longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown and killed in 2011. Hifter's opponents view him as an aspiring autocrat and fear a return to one-man rule.

A Section on 07/10/2019

Print Headline: France linked to missiles in Libya

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