PARIS — France sent weapons this month to Libyan civilians under siege by Moammar Khadafy’s forces, a military spokesman said yesterday, making it the first NATO country to reveal it has armed rebel fighters.
The deliveries of guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and munitions took place in early June in the western Nafusa mountains, when Khadafy forces had encircled civilians and his government refused a UN request to allow in a humanitarian aid shipment, Colonel Thierry Burkhard said.
After informing the United Nations, France dropped humanitarian aid, including water, food, and medical supplies, to besieged civilians, but the situation deteriorated, he said.
“So France also dropped equipment that allowed them to defend themselves — self-defense assets — which is to say weapons and munitions,’’ Burkhard said.
The weapons were parachuted in, he said.
France and Britain, backed by the United States, have been among the main powers behind a months-long NATO-led air campaign to protect civilians from Khadafy’s forces.
In Brussels, a NATO official said that until now, no alliance member had shipped weapons to the rebels since the fighting started in the North African country in March.
Officials in the West and beyond have debated whether the UN resolution in March that authorized a no-fly zone over Libya and NATO’s air campaign to protect civilians also left room for weapons shipments.
Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, has made the case that UN resolutions on Libya did not prohibit providing weapons to the rebels, saying this spring that it was “morally justified’’ to aid the opposition.
Russia and China, which are permanent members of the UN Security Council, have been among the most wary of the NATO-led campaign in Libya, and several French diplomats in Paris dodged the question about how a decision was made to airlift in the weapons.