PARIS (Reuters) - Two French nationals suspected of wanting to join Islamic State training camps in Libya before heading to Syria were arrested in Tunisia in mid-November, according to an official at the Paris prosecutor’s office.
It is the first case made public of potential French Islamic State recruits traveling to Libya instead of Syria, where hundreds of French citizens have already joined the ranks of the hardline group.
According to the official, the two men, aged 19 and 20, were arrested near Tunisia’s southern border with Libya. They were handed over to French authorities on Nov. 13, the day of the Paris attacks that killed 130 people and claimed by Islamic State (IS).
North African oil producer Libya has slipped deeper into chaos with two rival governments, each backed by a multitude of armed factions, procrastinating over signing a previously negotiated agreement for a unity government.
This has allowed IS jihadists to take control of the city of Sirte and tighten their grip on central Libya, carrying out summary executions, beheadings and amputations, the United Nations said this month.
The official said the two men had said they wanted to train in Libya with the aim of fighting with Islamic State in Syria.
French officials have repeated for more than a year that they are concerned by events in Libya, warning that the political void in the north is creating favorable conditions for Islamist groups to regroup in the barren south of the country.
Highlighting France’s fears, Paris redeployed some 3,500 troops - previously used to intervene in its former colony Mali in 2013 - across West Africa, including near Libya’s southern border, to form a counter-terrorism force.
Paris has said it would be ready to support militarily a unified Libyan government against Islamic State.
President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said on Nov. 26 world powers needed to step up efforts to stop IS gaining ground in Libya, which Renzi warned risked becoming “the next emergency”.
Libya is also the departure point for most of the more than 140,000 migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia who have come to Italy in dangerously overcrowded boats this year.
People smugglers operate with impunity against the backdrop of the political chaos that has followed the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi four years ago after Western powers, including France, launched air strikes against Gaddafi’s troops.
Reporting By John Irish and Gerard Bon; Editing by Andrew Callus