PARIS – Terror groups ousted from Mali appear to be trying to set up a new haven in Libya, France's defense minister said Monday, vowing to discuss ways of helping Tripoli improve its shaky security with U.S. officials later this week.
Jean-Yves Le Drian noted that there is common ground: both French and U.S. diplomatic outposts in Libya were hit by terror attacks.
French forces took a leading role in driving al-Qaida-linked rebels from their bases in northern Mali this year, and officials have expressed concern that Libya may be al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb's next choice of sanctuary.
"Apparently in Libya there are attempts to constitute a new terrorist hotbed — 'apparently,' I weigh my words well — and there's a Libyan state that exists, has institutions, and is appropriate to help to ensure its sovereignty over its territory," Le Drian told a group of American and British reporters ahead of his trips to London and Washington on Thursday and Friday. "It's certain that we will talk about it."
French forces were backed by African countries and U.S. intelligence and logistics support in the Mali intervention. France, Britain and the U.S. also were pivotal in the NATO-led air campaign over Libya that helped rebels oust Moammar Gadhafi's regime two years ago.
French officials believe that some jihadists may have fled Mali along traditional drug and other contraband trafficking routes through Niger and into Libya. Le Drian did not answer a question about how many there are.
"They were pretty shaken up — decimated — by our intervention" that began on Jan. 11. Last month, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a new U.N. peacekeeping force for Mali to help restore democracy and stabilize the northern half of the country. France plans to keep 1,000 troops in Mali to take part in the U.N. mission, train Malian forces, and battle any terrorist remnants.
Libya's tenuous security situation was underscored Monday when a car bomb exploded a hospital in the eastern city of Benghazi, killing at least 10 people, officials in Libya said.
In the wide-ranging interview, Le Drian also said that France believes in the need for a political solution in Syria, and has noticed "fragility" in the coalition of opponents to President Bashar Assad's regime. He also said France "doesn't have proof" that either side in that conflict may have used chemical weapons: "We only have clues for the moment (about possible use) ... but no verification."
Le Drian is expected to join French President Francois Hollande in Brussels on Wednesday at a donor's conference for Mali, before travelling to London and then Washington — where he will meet with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken, and Congressional leaders.
The minister will also speak before two think tanks to detail France's freshly minted "white book" on defense and security, which lays out the threats that France faces in the future and ways of combatting them, at a time when many deficit-riddled European countries like France have been looking for ways to trim state spending.