France sent weapons this month to Libyan civilians under siege by Moammar Gaddafi's forces, a military spokesman said Wednesday, making it the first NATO country to announce 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 Gaddafi forces had encircled civilians and his government refused a U.N request to allow in a humanitarian aid shipment, Col. Thierry Burkhard said.
After informing the United Nations, France dropped humanitarian aid including water, food and medical supplies to besieged civilians in the region, but the situation then deteriorated further, he said.
"So France also dropped equipment that allowed them to defend themselves - self-defense assets - which is to say weapons and munitions," Burkhard told The Associated Press by phone.
The weapons were parachuted in by air and included "self-defense assets" like assault weapons, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and munitions, he said.
France and Britain, backed by the United States, have been among the main powers behind a monthslong NATO-led air campaign to protect civilians from assaults by Gaddafi'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 U.N. 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 to rebels.
Italy's foreign minister, Franco Frattini, has made the case that U.N. resolutions on Libya did not prohibit providing weapons to the rebels, and said this spring that it was "morally justified" to aid the opposition.
Meanwhile, in London Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Libya's cash-strapped opposition has received donor funds to pay salaries to public-sector workers in rebel-held areas.
Last week, a first payment of $100 million in international aid money was made to Libya's main opposition group, based in the eastern city of Benghazi, Hague told lawmakers.
He said a meeting of the contact group in Istanbul next month would seek to ensure "the international community is ready to support the Libyan people in building a stable future." Libya's Transitional National Council said that funds would be used to pay teachers, street cleaners and other workers providing essential services.
Opposition Finance Minister Ali Tarhouni has made repeated pleas for urgent funds, and warned on Tuesday that hospitals in the eastern city of Benghazi were running low on medical supplies.