BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — A French warplane bombed Islamic militia positions outside the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi this week after the killings of French officers in the area, two Libyan officials said Thursday.
A member of the militia said that the bombings took place Wednesday and killed least 16 militiamen and destroyed their weapons. The two military officials gave no casualty figures. All three spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The killings of the French, which took place on Sunday and which were first reported by the AP, prompted the French Defense Ministry to confirm on Wednesday that it lost three officers in eastern Libya. It was the first time France has said its forces operate in eastern Libya.
The acknowledgment underscored the complexities of Libya's conflict, with its rival political factions and a myriad of militias, and also embarrassed France because it exposed the French in eastern Libya are fighting alongside Brig. Gen. Khalifa Hifter — a bitter opponent of the U.N.-backed unity government based in the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
The two Libyan officials said the French bombings were in retaliation for the deaths of the French special forces. The bombings targeted a district called al-Magrun and its surroundings east of Benghazi, where Hifter has been fighting the Islamic militias known as Benghazi Defense Brigade, they said. Hifter has also for the past two years fought an al-Qaida-linked group in Benghazi.
France did not immediately confirm the bombings, which the two Libyan officials said forced the militias to retreat toward the town of Ajdabiya, west of Benghazi.
The Red Crescent in Libya said Thursday that it retrieved a total of 17 bodies from districts bombed east of Benghazi.
Ahmed al-Mesmari, the spokesman for Hifter's forces, told reporters in Benghazi on Wednesday that the French were gathering intelligence on the Islamic State affiliate in Libya when the helicopter they were one was downed by the militias.
He claimed the fight against the militias was going well, saying the "the enemy retreated after heavy losses in their ranks" and was now "cowering in the desert."
After the 2011 ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi by NATO-backed rebels, Libya slid into chaos and years later, it split into two governments and parliaments, each backed by a loose array of militias and tribes. In December, a U.N. deal created a new unity government and presidency council, aiming to heal the rift and unite Libyan militias and forces under a joint command.
However, the new government has been facing multiple challenges and resistance from various groups. According to the deal, Libya's internationally-recognized parliament must give a vote of confidence to the new government but it has so far failed to do so, causing political deadlock. That parliament also supports the anti-Islamic forces under Hifter's command.
For the past two years, foreign missions and military experts have joined two rival sides in Libya. Apart from the French, U.S. and British forces have also reportedly been involved with different rival armed groups and political factions in Libya.
Libya's pro-government militias — mainly from the western city of Misrata — have been waging a two-month offensive against the Islamic State group in the militants' last bastion in Sirte, a city on the Mediterranean. Reports have suggested that British forces are involved in the anti-IS assault while American warplanes have struck several IS positions in the western city of Sabratha and the eastern town of Ajdabiya.
Dodging questions as to why French special forces are in Libya, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said on Thursday that "support for the Government of National Accord is a priority for France."
"France encourages all Libyan forces to be placed under the authority" of the U.N.-backed unity government in Tripoli, Nadal added.
On Wednesday, hundreds of protesters demonstrated in Tripoli against France's involvement in Libya, burning the French flag and calling for attacks on French business interests in Libya. Al-Sadeq al-Ghariyani, an ultraconservative cleric, denounced France's involvement as "foreign invasion."
A Libyan militia known as Oil Installation Guards, which is in charge of vital oil terminals, issued a statement warning France of "becoming a party that fuels conflict by supporting one side against the other."
Also on Thursday, Amnesty International urged Hifter's forces to halt airstrikes targeting areas under control of Islamic militias inside Benghazi, so as not to endanger lives of an estimated 130 people suspected to be held by the militias as human shields.
Some of the captives, held since October 2014, appeared in a video this month purportedly posted by al-Qaida-linked Ansar al-Shariah militant group.
"No one should be held as a hostage or treated as a human shield," said Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty's interim deputy director for Middle East and North Africa. She urged Hifter's forces to "avoid launching disproportionate or otherwise indiscriminate attacks, which may amount to war crimes."
Associated Press Writers Thomas Adamson in Paris and Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.