A Libyan mob attacked and destroyed the French Embassy in Tripoli today in a raid that French authorities said had been inspired by the Libyan government apparently in retaliation against French military help for neighboring Tunisia.
In telophone interviews, French Ambassador to Libya Charles Malo told reporters that he and his staff escaped moments before the Libyan attackers gutted the embassy's interior. There were no casualties.
The takeover, which Malo said "could only have been decided" by the Libyan authorities, injected a serious new strain between Paris and Tripoli and will add to the political and religious tensions building in northern Africa as pro-Western governments in Morocco and Tunisia come under increasing pressures.
Malo charged that the Libyan government had failed to respond to a request for aid that was made more than an hour before the French Embassy was invaded.
France sent a naval task force and air transport units to Tunisia following an attack on the southern Tunisia city of Gafsa on Jan. 30. The Tunisians say that attack had Libyan backing.
Libyan radio said the "demonstrators were protesting the invasion of Tunisia by French forces and France'sattempt to make Tunisia a protectorate again." It said France was trying to reassert its old colonial role over all of northern Africa.
Libyan demonstrators set fire to the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli on Dec. 2 during an outburst of anti-American sentiment in a number of Moslem nations.
The countries of northern Africa are involved in a number of intricate and longstanding conflicts that occasionally break into open warfare.
Morocco is fighting Algerian-backed guerrillas seeking an independent Western Sahara and Libya has a role in the long-running civil war in Chad, another place where French forces have played a significant role.
A French official said France will call home its diplomats in Libya if only because there is no place for them to work in Tripoli. He added that the Libyan Embassy staff in Paris would also be asked to go home.
There has been no Libyan ambassdor in Paris since September, when the embassy was taken over the request of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi by a popylar revolutionary committee of students that the French government has refused to recognize.
The French official said the government is considering other steps to protest Libya's action. A Foreign Ministry communique said, "France reserves the right to request appropriate reparations and to draw the proper conclusions from this matter about Franco-Libyan relations." It added that a strong protest was lodged at the Libyan Foreign Ministry against "the inadmissible behavior of the Libyan authorities."
The embassy invaders first cut the telephone lines and then systematically destroyed the interior of the buildings before setting fires. Fire men reportedly arrived hours after having been called. All of the vehicles in the embassy courtyard were also burned, witnesses reported.
French-Libyan relations have seen many ups and downs. France has sold Libya 130 Mirage fighter-bombers as well as military helicopters, training planes and antiaircraft missiles. There are still French military technicians in Libya, and France continues to supply spare parts. Consideration is being given in Paris to cutting off that aid.
More recently, France and Libya have been in conflict in Chad, where Libyan-backed guerrillas were defeated by some 2,500 French troops. The French troops are now down to half that number and have just been requested to leave. But French sources say Paris wants to put off a complete withdrawal, lest the Libyans be tempted to back a new military campaign.
The United States is also actively engaged in military moves to dissuade Libya from further actions against Tunisia. A high U.S. official said vessels of the U.S. 6th Fleet have been cruising in the Gulf of Gabes, the waters shared by Tunisia and Libya, and that the U.S. ships are expected to move north to Tunis to display support for the government.
The United States is also understood to be negotiating an offer of credits to Tunisia for armored personnel carriers and helicopters.
It is increasingly clear that the Gafsa operation was far larger than the Tunis government has admitted and that the attackers found at least some support from the local population.
The government has said there were only 50 attackers and that there were 41 dead, most of them young Tunisian Army recruits surprised in bed, taken hostage and mowed down with machine guns when they refused to join the rebels.
Accounts by Europeans who lived in Gafsa all tend to agree that there must have been at least five times the number of deaths reported by the government.
There have been a number of eyewitness accounts of summary executions of young men by Tunisian soldiers. The area, with high unemployment, is traditionally rebellious. It is still sealed off to journalists.
For the past three nights, Tunisian television has been interviewing prisoners taken among the attackers, including Ezzadine Cherif, a veteran leftist opponent of the Tunisian government who described the training camps in Libya where large numbers of Tunisians have attended along with Moroccans, Algerians, Egyptians, Sudanese, Syrians and others. One of the prisoners said there were Soviet and Cuban military instructors in the camps. Most of Libya's huge arsenal is Soviet.