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Prosecutors Urged to Investigate French Role in Egyptian Airstrikes on Civilians

An intel leak of 2021 showed how French officers complained that they were being asked to conduct Egyptian airstrikes

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FRANCE: Two international NGOs have asked French prosecutors and the UN to conduct a probe into the French state’s involvement in Egypt allegedly committing crimes against humanity in a secret military operation on the Egyptian-Libyan border.

An intel leak of 2021 showed how French officers complained that they were being asked to conduct Egyptian airstrikes, codenamed Operation Sirli, on the Egyptian-Libyan border. 

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The Egyptian military had subverted the original counter-terrorism purpose into taking out vehicles containing nothing more than contraband. Reportedly, there have been dozens of casualties and injured grievously.

According to the UK-based barrister Haydee Dijkstal, the complaint was submitted and registered to the French national anti-terrorist prosecutor’s office on Monday on behalf of the US-based NGOs Egyptians Abroad for Democracy and Codepink.

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The NGOs insist that the French judiciary investigate the French officials’ complicity in committing crimes against unsuspecting civilians by assisting Egyptian authorities with intel, aerial surveillance and intelligence. 

What the officials failed to do, which becomes problematic, is that they did not end the assistance once it became clear that Egypt was not using the information for counter-terrorism purposes. They were using it to bomb alleged traffickers involved in drug supply and contraband.

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The complaint claims “the targeted attacks that resulted in the systematic killing and wounding of civilians suspected of smuggling and unrelated to terrorism in (the Egyptian Western desert), constitute crimes against humanity”.

The NGOs also referred the matter to three UN special rapporteurs to “take steps to obtain additional information on the targeted attacks, including through a visit to Egypt”.

Operation Sirli was a confirmed but secret intelligence mission launched by France in February 2016 to stabilize Egypt’s porous 745-miles (1,200 km) border with Libya to curb any threats of terrorism. 

The initial deal was important to French efforts to build strong ties with its security partner Egypt and was signed eventually by the then French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, but was known to successive French presidents.

Confidential defence documents suggest that the French military intelligence directorate (DRM) leaked in 2021, and the Egyptian forces altered the original mission so that hundreds of vehicles were targeted, causing countless deaths and injuries. 

The initial leak of the records prompted a French government investigation, although the internal investigation was more more concerned with the leak’s origin than with what it revealed.

Eventually, a move by wing deputies in the national parliament to call for a political investigation took shape.

The documents confirm that French soldiers sent to Egypt between 2016 and 2019 alerted their superiors on four separate occasions in military intelligence to the concern about military airstrikes being launched against civilians accused of drug smuggling. 

One of the leaked emails said the French unit “remains very vigilant but nevertheless worried about the use made of [information] for [targeting] purposes”. Another email said the vehicles were linked with “simple Bedouin smuggling”. The strikes on hundreds of vehicles were carried out by Egyptian F-16s.

The French defence ministry has defended the Sirli mission and reiterated that it was “subject to a clear framework and strict preventive measures”.

Le Drian confirmed that “the data exchange method is built in such a way that it cannot be used to lead strikes” while acknowledging the security cooperation with the Egyptian authorities.

To end what the NGOs refer to as the impunity of those who have not yet been identified but are accountable for the attacks for war crimes or crimes against humanity, the complaint to the French prosecutor is meant to get a reference for a magistrate to investigate the case.

The three special UN rapporteurs operating in the field claim Egypt mounted harsh attacks on innocent civilians, completely unrelated to terrorism and consequently violating their human rights, which requires a rigorous investigation by the UN human rights council.

Dijkstal said that the location data collected by the French revealed that most of the civilians who had been killed had received no justice as the perpetrators had not been brought to trial or the victim’s families had received no reparations. “In the name of terrorism, ordinary people such as date farmers were targeted.”

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