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Egypt operation leaks: France takes legal action for breach of defence secrecy

The move comes after revelations by an investigative website that France facilitated state-sponsored killings in Egypt's western desert
French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi (R) before the International conference on Libya at the Maison de la Chimie in Paris (AFP)

France's defence ministry filed a legal complaint on Wednesday over a "violation of national secrecy", after revelations suggesting a French anti-terrorism operation in Egypt was being used for internal repression, the ministry said on Thursday.

The investigation by Disclose, a French investigative news website, said that France has provided intelligence to the Egyptian authorities, which has been used by Cairo to "kill civilians" suspected of smuggling across the border with Libya, rather than terrorists, as was agreed.

The French government has not denied the revelations.

According to a report on Sunday by 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.

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”.

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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 air force 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.

In response to the revelations, Herve Grandjean, spokesperson for the defence ministry, said that it “has taken legal action after this massive leak of classified documents,” without specifying who was targeted by the complaint.

"There has been a leak of documents covered by the secret of national defence. This leak is a violation of the law... extremely serious, because what can be revealed can say things about the operating methods of the army, can endanger the safety of those involved," he said.

Contacted by AFP, the media outlet Disclose said at midday on Thursday that it had not received any notification from the courts.

The website acknowledges the revelations are covered by "national defence secrecy" but says it published the reports "in the name of a fundamental principle in democracy: the right to information."

The ministry has also launched an "internal investigation to check that the rules have been applied" by their Egyptian counterparts.

"The contours of this intelligence mission meet extremely strict requirements: it is about the fight against terrorism, to the exclusion of domestic issues," said Grandjean.

"We are waiting for the results of the investigation to draw the consequences," he concluded without further details.

Disclose cites notes transmitted in 2017 by the military intelligence and the air force, which are concerned about the drift of the intelligence operation, which the Egyptians would use to target civilians suspected of smuggling.

Despite efforts from Paris to shift its arms exports to Europe, Egypt remains one of the main recipients of French military equipment.