World News

France flies surveillance missions over IS-held areas of Libya

PARIS (Reuters) - French military aircraft have flown reconnaissance and intelligence missions over Libya, including areas controlled by Islamic State, and more are planned, a presidential document shows.

According to the press dossier provided on Friday ahead of President Francois Hollande’s visit to the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier off the coast of Syria, two missions were flown on Nov. 20 and 21 around the towns of Sirte and Tobruk.

French warplanes have been bombing Islamic State in Iraq for more than a year, and in Syria since September. France stepped up its bombing in Syria after the attacks by Islamic State (IS) in Paris on Nov. 13 that killed 130 people.

The French government had not previously acknowledged carrying out operations over IS zones in Libya. Sirte is controlled by the group.

“Other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights are also planned,” the document said.

Neither the defence ministry nor president’s office were immediately available for comment.

IS in Libya has between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters and is the only affiliate known to have received support and guidance from the extremist group’s stronghold in Syria and Iraq, U.N. experts said in a report circulated on Tuesday.

The North African oil producer is in chaos, with two rival governments, each backed by armed factions, procrastinating over signing a previously negotiated agreement for a unity government.

French officials have been warning for more than a year that the political void is creating favourable conditions for Islamist groups.

Paris has redeployed some 3,500 troops - previously used to intervene in its former colony Mali in 2013 - across West Africa, including near Libya’s southern border, to form a counter-terrorism force.

“Libya worries me because Daesh (IS) has installed itself by taking advantage of local rivalries,” French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Nov. 22.

“If we can unite those forces against Daesh, it will no longer exist as they have sufficient military means.”

Italy said on Dec. 2 it wanted to host an international meeting in Rome this month to promote a political deal between Libya’s rival governments and open the way to fight IS militants there.

French officials have said they would be ready to support a united government militarily against IS, but have ruled out sending ground forces.

Reporting by John Irish and Marine Pennetier; Editing by Andrew Callus and Andrew Roche