Tunisian authorities have stopped more than 20 armed Europeans attempting to cross into the country from neighbouring Libya, officials said on Tuesday.
“An armed group consisting of 13 French nationals attempted to cross the border in 4×4 vehicles with diplomatic license plates at the Ras Jedir crossing on Sunday,” said Defence Minister Abdelkareem Zubaidi.
The group tried to enter Tunisia on Sunday “under diplomatic cover, with arms and ammunition” he said.
According to the local Mosaique FM radio station, the group was denied entry into Tunisia after failing to disclose the entirety of its arms inventory.
The French embassy in Tunis said the individuals were members of a security detail attached to the French diplomatic mission in Libya.
“[They were] members of the French protection team that provides security protection to the French ambassador for Libya.”
“Given the current situation in Libya, one of the trips which the French embassy undertakes regularly between Tunis and Tripoli, was made by road,” the embassy said, without mentioning any arms seized.
It said the stop at the border was routine, and after an inventory of equipment, the detachment continued on its route.
In a separate incident, Zubaidi said 11 people of different European nationalities had recently tried to enter Tunisian waters from Libya in two rubber life boats.
“The Tunisian navy confiscated their weapons and handed them over to the National Guard,” Zubaidi said, without saying when exactly the incident had occurred.
Libya, which has been mired in chaos since the NATO-backed toppling of Gaddafi in 2011, has been split into rival eastern and western administrations since 2014.
The renegade General Khalifa Haftar, who commands forces loyal to Libya’s eastern-based government, launched an ambitious campaign in early April to capture Tripoli, where Libya’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) is based.
Analysts say Haftar’s push on the capital threatens to further destabilise the oil-rich country and reignite a full-blown civil war.
While France officially supports the Tripoli-based government, it has also provided Haftar with financial, military and intelligence support in recent years.
Mustafa Fetouri, an independent Libyan academic based in Paris, cast doubt on the official French explanation for the border incident.
“This particular incident is very unclear. The French claim that it is the guard of the embassy in Tripoli, but the building itself is closed, there are no operations there. The French government only recently allowed its employees, including the aid services, to go back to Libya,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It doesn’t make sense to say they are the guards of the embassy. It also doesn’t make sense to say they are actively involved with these operations helping Mr Haftar on the other side, because it would have been much safer for him just to take them to eastern Libya and they could fly out of the country from there.”