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France detains journalist who covered killings of civilians in Egypt-Libya border operation

Ariane Lavrilleux faces investigation in attempt to identify sources of leak that revealed joint operation that led to extrajudicial killings in Western Desert between 2016 and 2018
French journalist Ariane Lavrilleux co-authored an investigative series that published classified defence documents revealing a covert French-Egyptian operation in 2016 (Twitter)

French police detained a journalist on Tuesday in connection with her reporting on alleged French complicity in extrajudicial killings of civilians in Egypt's Western Desert between 2016 and 2018, according to investigative news website Disclose.

The journalist, Ariane Lavrilleux, who is a French national, co-authored the investigative series Egypt Papers, which was published in November 2021.

The investigation claimed that France has provided intelligence to the Egyptian authorities as part of Operation Sirli, which was then used by Cairo to "kill civilians" suspected of smuggling across the border with Libya, rather than terrorists, as was agreed.

According to leaked classified defence documents cited by Disclose, the French military was implicated in at least 19 air strikes against civilians between 2016 and 2018.

The French government has not denied the reports.

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Operation Sirli began in February 2016 during the presidency of Francois Hollande. It continued despite reservations expressed by both French military intelligence and the air force about the way Egypt was using the intelligence, Disclose reported.

One such note was addressed to French defence minister Florence Parly on 22 January 2019, before French President Emmanuel Macron's official visit to Egypt.

In response to the revelations two years ago, Herve Grandjean, spokesperson for the defence ministry, said that the ministry had "taken legal action after this massive leak of classified documents", without specifying who was targeted by the complaint.

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Disclose said on Tuesday that the General Directorate of Internal Security (DGSI) searched Lavrilleux's home looking for evidence related to her sources. 

"The objective of this unacceptable attack on press freedom is to identify the Disclose's sources, which made it possible to reveal the military operation Sirli, carried out by France in Egypt on behalf of the dictatorship," the website said in a press release.

"Accompanied by an investigating judge, police officers from DGSI placed the journalist in police custody as part of an investigation for compromising national defence secrets and revealing information which may lead to the identification of a protected agent," the statement added.

Reporters Without Borders denounced Lavrilleux's arrest, saying in a Tweet: "We fear that the DGSI's actions will undermine the secrecy of sources."

Meanwhile, Lavrilleux's lawyer Virginie Marquet warned that the crackdown "risks seriously undermining the confidentiality of journalists' sources", and told AFP that her client had "only revealed information of public interest".

Last year, two US advocacy groups filed a joint complaint asking France's national anti-terrorism prosecutor and the UN to investigate Paris' complicity in crimes against humanity in Egypt in connection with Operation Sirli, according to Disclose.

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