France Trying to Dispel Illusions About Mirages in Libya

The Mirage jets that France agreed to sell Libya last year have come home to roost. The government is frankly worried, not how to refuse delivery of the supersonic war planes to the Libyans but how to appease local and international opinion which has become increasingly unfavorable toward the deal in view of recent developments. It may be remembered that France announced the sale of 110 Mirages to Libya a year ago after much hemming and hawing, denials and semi-denials that any such deal was brewing. What embarrassed the French was their continued embargo of 50 Mirages bought and paid for by Israel, planes the late President Charles de Gaulle refused to deliver because France was not going to provide arms to either side in the Middle East conflict. The Libyans were hardly neutrals. The Mirage sales may have been first negotiated with the flaccid government of pro-Western King Idris but the planes would be received by the hard line military clique that ousted him. The Libyan coup placed that country squarely in line with Egyptian President Gamal Abdol Nassor who, at that juncture, was waging his “war of attrition” with Israel across the Suez Canal. Since Libya’s miniscule air force could hardly absorb 50 of the most sophisticated of the world’s fighting aircraft, legitimate fears were aroused that the French jets might find their way into Egyptian hands. Paris was quick to inform the world that the contract with Libyans stipulated that there was to be no transfer of the Mirages to a third power. Should that take place, the French reserved the right to suspend deliveries.

There the matter rested for many months until France’s Arab friends created a new source of embarrassment abroad and new outcries against the Mirage deal at home. The projected federation of Libya with Egypt and Syria, announced in Cairo last month, increased the likelihood that Egyptian and possibly Syrian pilots would be flying the Mirages against Israel some day. The federation, which is expected to be ratified by the three powers following popular referendum next September, is essentially a military alliance. But if the three nations are to have one capital, one flag and one national assembly they will certainly have one armed force, meaning that the arms of one will be at the disposal of all. Under such circumstances, could the French claim that Libyan jets sent to Cairo were transferred to a “third power?” Adding to France’s uneasiness was the revival of the old Khartoum summit formula by the three principles of the new federation–no recognition, no negotiation, no peace with Israel. Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, Libya’s president, said pointedly that the Mirages were not intended for display at a museum in Tripoli. One of his cabinet ministers promptly explained that the Mirages would only be used to defend Libyan territory. Paris was not impressed. Foreign Minister Maurice Schumann emphasized to the press that France still holds to the non-transfer clause of its contract with Libya and will invoke it should there be any hint of violation.

LAW-MAKERS MOUNTING PLEAS FOR GOVERNMENT TO ACT

Schumann recalled that Premier Jacques Chaban-Delmas said in January, 1970, “If the (Libyan) Mirages were to change direction–and we would know it very quickly–then the others would be embargoed.” Deliveries of the jets are spaced over two years. Some French law-makers however believe the handwriting is clearly on the wall and want the government to act. One member of parliament, M. Stehlin, submitted a written inquiry to the Foreign Minister asking what “measures he intends to take and what instructions he has already given to stop the supply of arms to Libya.” Andre Monteil, chairman of the French Senate’s foreign affairs committee called on the government to alter its Mideast embargo policy “in light of the new politics in the Mediterranean.” So far, President Georges Pompidou has sent no warning to Libya nor has he given any new instructions regarding the deliveries of the jets. Pompidou, at least publicly, sees no signs that the Libyans intend to transfer their Mirages to Egypt. He seems to be hoping for a reassuring statement from Tripoli which has not been forthcoming. Libya has received its first four Mirage 3-Rs which are two-scater jets used for training purposes. About 50 of the Mirages are multi-purpose fighters similar to those sold but not delivered to Israel. About 30 are Mirage 3-Es, the latest model equipped with highly sophisticated navigational devices that enable them to fly blind and attack ground targets in all weather.

The French Air Force center at Dijon has become a training school for 21 Libyan pilots learning how to fly the Mirages. Flight engineers and wireless officers are being trained by instructors from the Marcel Dassault Co. which manufactures the Mirage. France has also sent a dozen experts from Dassault and Snecma, manufacturer of the Mirage’s “Atar” jet engine to Libya to train maintenance personnel to service the planes after delivery. They are located at the former American Wheelus Air Force Base taken over by the Libyans and now called Okba. As these developments unfold, Israel is maintaining a low profile in Paris. Ambassador Asher Ben Nathan reportedly has instructions from Jerusalem to request “clarification” from the French Foreign Ministry on the status of the Libyan deal in light of the new federation. The Israelis apparently are anxious not to cause further embarrassment to the French government at this time. They still hope that the Pompidou government may soon lift the de Gaulle embargo, at least to the extent of selling some military hardware to Israel. The French government appears to want to remove the Mirages from the realm of politics and leave it as a commercial question. There have been many signs recently that both Israel and France are interested in ironing out their differences and improving their relations. Technical cooperation has already begun. At the Paris air show at Le Bourget this month, Israel will display its first home grown commercial jet, the twin engine “Arava” transport. The French firm now working on the supersonic “Concorde” may be licensed to manufacture a French version of the “Arava” to be known as “Sherpa.”

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