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UK troops 'operating from French-led Libyan base aiding renegade general'

French reconnaissance base in Benghazi being used by multinational forces and assisting Khalifa Haftar, according to reports
Haftar with UN envoy Martin Kobler, the head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (AFP)

British forces have based themselves in a French-led multinational military operations centre in Benghazi supporting renegade Libyan general Khalifa Haftar, according to reports in Arabic media and sources within Libya.

The centre, which was set up in December and began operating in February, also houses teams from Italy, Jordan and the UAE, the reports said. 

According to reports on the Huffington Post Arabic website, the centre operates a number of drone aircraft to conduct reconnaissance operations in the east of Libya.

Its fleet includes at least one high-altitude HALE surveillance drone, and a number of other smaller unmanned vehicles.

It is protected by remotely controlled heavy machine guns and rocket launchers, according to the reports.

Sources inside Libya confirmed to Middle East Eye that the centre was operational, but declined to give further details.

The Huffington Post report said that France has contributed 40 personnel who operate drones, analyse intelligence and direct Libyan infantry forces. Italy also provides 40 soldiers, who train Libyan forces and aid the French contingent.

Jordan's 10-soldier contribution runs training for Libyan marines, while four UAE soldiers operate drones and rocket launchers delivered to Haftar's forces. A team of 15 British soldiers collects data but does not take part in military operations.

A spokesman for Britain's Ministry of Defence said it had a long-standing policy of not commenting on special forces operations. 

Middle East Eye previously revealed that British SAS soldiers supported by Jordanian forces are already operating in Libya against Islamic State (IS) militants.

The British foreign secretary, Phillip Hammond, has said that the UK would not "rule out" sending troops to Libya.

The Huffington Post said US Marines were also present at the base, but had declined to give details regarding their role.

Haftar, who leads the "National Libyan Army," is opposed to and has fought IS, but refuses to recognise the UN-backed unity government in Tripoli. 

His forces launched Operation Dignity in Benghazi against groups he declared extremists, leading to the city's "liberation" earlier this year.

French special forces were soon after reported to have moved into the area.

Last year, IS was defeated in the eastern coastal city of Derna by a group called the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, which Haftar still considers an enemy.

Only a select few Libyan commanders have access to the operations centre. Abd al-Salam al-Hasi was named in the report as a coordinator between pro-Haftar forces and the international team.

The existence of the operations room raises questions on international co-operation with Libyan militias not aligned with the new unity government, which is currently leading an assault on the IS stronghold of Sirte.

Crispin Blunt, chairman of the British parliamentary select committee on foreign affairs, last month said supporting Haftar would be a perilous "shortcut" that would sacrifice Libyans' liberty in exchange for stability.

"I don't think the UK and the Western part of the international community should be party to that path," he told an audience at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "We should be doing our level best to make sure that it doesn't happen - when stability is bought at the price of the liberty of the Libyan people."

The British foreign office did not respond to requests for comment on British policy regarding anti-IS groups operating outside the remit of the unity government.

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