France on Wednesday admitted that it is the owner of American-made anti-tank missiles found at a rebel military base in Libya, raising awkward questions about European involvement in the civil war.
France's Army Ministry said the four Javelin missiles discovered at a base used by General Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army were intended for "self-protection of a French military unit deployed to carry out intelligence and counter-terrorism operations."
"Damaged and unusable, the armaments were being temporarily stocked at a depot ahead of their destruction," it said in a statement on Wednesday.
It said the weapons, found in the mountains south of Tripoli by forces loyal to the UN-backed government, were never intended for sale or transfer to any party to Libya's conflict.
The statement did not explain how many French soldiers are in the country or why they were operating in close proximity to Gheryan, the LNA's main headquarters for its controversial assault on Tripoli.
The discovery of javelin missiles at Gheryan was first reported by the New York Times. Chinese-made shells with United Arab Emirates markings were also discovered.
At least 1,000 people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced since Gen Haftar launched his assault on Tripoli in a bid to overthrow the UN-backed government of national accord in April.
France, like all permanent members of the UN Security Council, officially recognises the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
But Fayez Al-Sarraj, the prime minister of the GNA, has publicly protested French support for Gen Haftar since the battle began.
Some observers have also accused Paris of providing the general with diplomatic cover by watering down European Union statements about his attack on Tripoli.
Jalel Harouchi, a Libya analyst at the Clingedael Institute, said the discovery made it "impossible for Paris to credibly deny its deep preference" for Gen Haftar's faction in the civil war.
"For several years now, it has sought to prop up Marshal Haftar, help him defeat his opponents and take power in Libya," he said.
"In any event, other foreign states, such as the UAE, violate the Libya arms embargo much more egregiously than France does."
Gen Haftar, who heads a rival administration in the east of the country, has sought to portray himself as a potential secular strongman able to deal robustly with the threat of Islamist extremism in Libya.
He is believed to enjoy backing from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, and has also visited both Paris and Moscow to seek support.
He has courted the United States, which provided him with asylum after he fell out with Muammar Gadaffi in the 1980s.
Last week the United States blocked a British-drafted United Nations Security Council resolution that would have condemned an LNA airstrike on a migrant holding centre that killed at least 40 people.
The FGM 148 Javelin is a US-manufactured shoulder-launched missile designed to destroy modern tanks by striking them from above, where their armour is thinnest. They cost about £135,000 a piece.