PARIS (AP) — France acknowledged Wednesday that it airlifted weapons to Libyan civilians fighting Moammar Gadhafi's forces in a besieged mountain region south of Tripoli, becoming the first NATO country to do so in a major escalation in the international campaign.
The bold move was likely to draw criticism from countries leery of the allied use of force in Libya's civil war — like China and Russia — and crossed a threshold in hopes of a breakthrough in the protracted NATO-led mission.
The deliveries of guns, rocket-propelled grenades and munitions took place in early June in the western Nafusa mountains, when Gadhafi's troops had encircled civilians and his government refused a U.N request for a pause in the fighting there to allow access for a humanitarian aid shipment, French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said.
After informing the United Nations, France dropped humanitarian aid including water, food and medical supplies to besieged civilians in the region, but the situation then deteriorated further, he said.
"So, France also dropped equipment that allowed them to defend themselves — self-defense assets — which is to say weapons and munitions," Burkhard told The Associated Press.
The weapons were parachuted in by a military transport plane, he said. The impact of the airlifted weapons wasn't immediately clear. But in recent days — since the delivery — rebels in the mountains claimed to have advanced to the town of Bir al-Ghanam, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Tripoli.
In Libya's capital Wednesday, Gadhafi's prime minister, Al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, played down the reports of rebel mountain advances, saying "the situation in the western mountains is good, and it's under control."
The French weapons delivery amounted to Paris parsing the fine print in U.N. Security Council resolutions this year on Libya.
In New York, France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters that France had acted under a provision of the Security Council resolution adopted March 17 that imposed a no-fly zone over Libya and authorized military action short of a "foreign occupation force" to protect civilians.
Araud said France believes a provision saying that member states can take "all necessary measures, notwithstanding" an arms embargo, to protect civilians threatened by attack "means for us that in exceptional circumstances" the arms embargo can be ignored to protect civilians.
He said France will officially notify Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of the weapons delivery as required under the resolution.
But in a slightly different reasoning out of Paris, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said France's "reading" from early on was that the U.N. resolutions barred sending weapons to Gadhafi's regime — but the rebels were exempt, even if Paris had refrained from arming them for two months.
This time, with the civilians surrounded in Nafusa, France felt compelled to arm them to help stave off bloodshed, he said.
"What we feared was a massacre in the Nafusa mountains," said Valero. He said France's view was that the delivery of such "small weapons for self-defense" did not run counter to the U.N. mandate.
Still, several French diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because of ministry protocol, acknowledged France was preparing for the prospect of criticism from other countries or at the United Nations.
Further complicating the matter, Col. Gomaa Ibrahim, a member of the rebel military council in the mountain area, denied receiving French weapons, calling the reports "bewildering." He said the rebel leadership in the eastern city of Benghazi was seeking to clarify the matter with NATO.
Word of the shipments first emerged Wednesday in French daily Le Figaro, which cited an unidentified high-ranking official as saying the aim was to end a stalemate in Libya.
With European and American budgets tight, France and many other NATO countries have been hoping for a quick finish to the Libya operation. France is now spending about euro1 million ($1.4 million) per day in Libya beyond what's already been budgeted for its military this year, officials have said.
France and Britain, backed by Washington, have been the main powers behind the monthslong NATO-led air campaign to protect civilians from assaults by Gadhafi's forces.
In Brussels, a NATO official said that until now, no alliance member had shipped weapons to the rebels since the fighting started in the north African country in March.
Francois Heisbourg, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research think tank in Paris, said the French weapons drop was likely to raise questions among opponents of the NATO-led intervention.
"There's a question as to whether aiding the rebellion is part of the embargo or not but it isn't clear cut," he said. "That question will presumably be raised by those who expressed reticence in the Security Council."
"Some NATO allies like Turkey were against the campaign against Gadhafi to begin with, so this isn't going to make them any happier," added Heisbourg, whose foundation receives state funding.
He noted the Nafusa region is inhabited by many ethnic Berbers who oppose Gadhafi: "The point could be made that in this case they really do serve for the protection of civilians, which is what the U.N. resolution says."
Security Council permanent members Russia and China have been among the most wary of the NATO-led effort, and some French diplomats in Paris dodged the question about how a decision was made to airlift in the weapons.
The press office at the Chinese mission to the United Nations referred requests for comment to the Foreign Ministry in Beijing. The press office at the Russia's U.N. mission did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.
Meanwhile, in London on Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Libya's cash-strapped opposition has received donor funds to pay salaries to public-sector workers in rebel-held areas.
Last week, a first payment of $100 million in international aid money was made to Libya's main opposition group, based in the eastern city of Benghazi, Hague told lawmakers.
He said a meeting of the contact group in Istanbul next month would seek to ensure "the international community is ready to support the Libyan people in building a stable future."
Slobodan Lekic in Brussels, Edith M. Lederer and Anita Snow at the United Nations, Sarah El Deeb in Cairo, Adam Schreck in Tripoli and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.