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France accused of aiding Egyptian military in killing suspected smugglers

Leaked documents provoke outrage in France and calls for investigation into civilians killed using French military intelligence
Tens of taxis wait in line to reach the Salloum border crossing with Libya on 24 February 2011 (AFP)

French military intelligence has been used by the Egyptian security forces in order to "kill civilians" suspected of smuggling across the border with Libya, a report has revealed.

According to a report on Sunday by investigative website Disclose - based on leaked documents - the countries cooperated in a mission codenamed Operation Sirli, which was originally focused on providing intelligence about militant threats along Egypt's western border.

"In principle, the mission... consisted of searching the Western Desert to find possible terrorist threats coming from Libya," using a light aircraft designed for surveillance and reconnaissance, it said.

"But very quickly, the (French) members of the team understand that the intelligence supplied to the Egyptians are used to kill civilians suspected of contraband," the website wrote.

French military staff regularly notified their superiors of the abuse of the information, it added.

Disclose based its report on hundreds of classified documents on the operation that were leaked to it.

According to those documents, the French military was implicated in at least 19 air strikes against civilians between 2016 and 2018.

One document noted that during the course of the operation the "terrorist problem has never been raised”.

Operation Sirli began in February 2016 during the presidency of Francois Hollande.

It continued despite the reservations expressed by both French military intelligence (DRM) and the airforce about the way Egypt was using the intelligence, said Disclose.

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.

The French military was nevertheless still deployed in the Egyptian desert, Disclose reported.

Neither the French presidency nor any of the arms of the military responded to an approach from the journalists who carried out the investigation.

Inquiry calls

Opposition deputies immediately called for a parliamentary committee to be set up to investigate the affair in the aftermath of the publication, while Parly ordered her own investigation.

Within hours of the story's publication, a statement from France's defence ministry confirmed that the two countries had arrangements in the field of intelligence and counter-terrorism.

For security reasons however, they were not prepared to say any more on the matter.

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The statement added that the defence minister had asked for an investigation to be launched into the information revealed by Disclose.

The left-wing opposition party France Unbowed party issued a statement calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the allegations.

The party called for Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who served as defence minister during the Hollande presidency, to come before parliament to explain what was going on.

Although France has expressed a desire to refocus its arms exports on Europe, Egypt remains one of its main clients.

Its sales there increased considerably when President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power in 2014. Since then, Egypt has bought France's Rafale fighter aircraft, a frigate, four corvettes and two Mistral helicopter-carriers.

In December 2020, Macron awarded Sisi the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, the highest award that France has to offer, provoking outrage from activists who have criticised his human rights record.