3 French troops killed in intelligence operation in Libya, in 1st confirmation that France has troops there

PARIS (AFP) - Three French soldiers who were carrying out "dangerous intelligence operations" in Libya have been killed in a helicopter accident, President Francois Hollande said on Wednesday (July 20).

The deaths provide the first confirmation that France has troops in the country where the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has several bases.

Mr Hollande said Libya was experiencing "dangerous instability". "It's only a few hundred kilometres from Europe's shores. And at the moment we're carrying out dangerous intelligence operations," he said. "Three of our soldiers who were, in fact, involved in these operations have lost their lives in a helicopter accident."

Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had earlier confirmed the deaths of three officers "who died while on mission in Libya" and praised their "courage and devotion", without giving details on the circumstances of their deaths.

France had previously said its warplanes were carrying out reconnaissance flights over Libya.

But Paris has never confirmed reports that it has special forces on the ground in the country, as claimed by Le Monde daily and hinted at previously by the UN's envoy to Libya Martin Kobler.

Rival militias in the desert state have been vying for power since the overthrow of veteran dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

ISIS has taken advantage of the breakdown in central authority to establish a stronghold in the coastal city of Sirte.

Last month, Le Drian told Parliament that France has had been gathering intelligence in Libya "for some time".

"We need to see what's going on," he said, without giving details.

He had ruled out however deploying ground forces in Libya.

"Our presence on the ground is not the right solution," he said.

The news of the troops' deaths comes as France struggles to recover from a massacre in Nice last week, in which a Tunisian slammed a truck into a crowd, killing 84 people.

ISIS, which directed last year's attacks on France's national stadium and Paris nightspots, claimed the attack was the work of one of its "soldiers".

French investigators have said there is no proof he was acting on behalf of ISIS.

France, together with Britain, led the push in 2011 for the Nato-led campaign of airstrikes that helped topple Gaddafi's regime.

The two countries were later accused of not doing enough to support Libya after the intervention.

In June they lobbied for EU ships patrolling the Mediterranean against migrant traffickers to be allowed to intercept vessels suspected of smuggling arms to Libya.

The UN Security Council authorised the move on June 15.