France provided weapons, munitions and food to Libyan rebels in the Western Mountains in early June to prevent troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi from overrunning the region, a military spokesman said Wednesday.
Citing unidentified sources, Le Figaro newspaper said on Wednesday France had parachuted "large amounts" of weapons, including rocket launchers, assault rifles, machine guns and anti-tank missiles, into the Jebel Nafusa region.
Officials have since tried to defend the move, maintaining they were just supporting the rebels' push toward Gaddafi's stronghold in the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
"There were humanitarian drops because the humanitarian situation was worsening and at one point it seemed the security situation was threatening civilians who could not defend themselves," armed forces spokesman Thierry Burkhard told Reuters.
"France therefore also sent equipment allowing them to defend themselves, comprising light weapons and munitions," he said, adding that the drop in early June had included medicine and food.
In four months of conflict, the rebellion against Gaddafi's 41-year rule has made only slow progress. Despite NATO starting a bombing campaign three months ago, the rebels have not yet reached Tripoli and the Libyan leaders still stand defiant.
However, rebels based in the Western Mountains region southwest of the capital have last week end insisted they achieved their biggest breakthrough in weeks after reaching the town of Bir al-Ghanam, where they are now fighting pro-Gaddafi forces for control.
Le Figaro said France's decision to send arms had been taken without consulting its NATO partners and it quoted a high-level source saying it was "because there was no other way to proceed."
Officials at the Foreign Ministry official said it did not handle operational affairs and could not comment on the report and government spokesman Francois Baroin declined to comment.
However contradicting the reports a French military source also told the newspaper that no planes could fly in the area without NATO knowing about it, thus incriminating the Alliance.
Le Figaro said it had seen a confidential map stamped by French intelligence services showing various areas in the mountains including Yafran and Nalut under the control of rebels where weapons could be sent.
Speaking after a meeting between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and rebel chief Mahmoud Jibril, National Transitional Council Information Minister Mahmoud Shammam told reporters on Tuesday it had not asked for any further military assistance.
"We are getting our (military) means from other places," Shammam said, without elaborating.
Until now, reports mainly indicated that the rebels were receiving weapons from Qatar but France could be in trouble if Le Figaro is right. Libya is still under an arms embargo and no direct weapons should be given to the rebels. As the rest of the international community has been calling for a political solution to the conflict and for a cease fire to be respected by both camps it seems that France is decided to use its military preponderance to assert its power and force Gaddafi out.