Tunisian authorities have stopped more than 20 armed European diplomats attempting to cross into the country from neighbouring Libya, local officials said on Tuesday.
“An armed group consisting of 13 French nationals attempted to cross the border in 4×4 vehicles with diplomatic license plates at the Ras Jedir crossing on Sunday,” said Abdelkareem Zubaidi, the minister of national defense.
According to the local Mosaique FM radio station, the group was denied entry into Tunisia after failing to disclose the entirety of its arms inventory.
The French embassy in Tunis said the individuals were members of a security detail attached to the French diplomatic mission in Libya which is based in the Tunisian capital.
“Given the current situation in Libya, one of the trips which the French embassy undertakes regularly between Tunis and Tripoli, was made by road,” the embassy said, without mentioning any arms seized.
It said the stop at the border was routine, and after an inventory of equipment, the detachment continued on its route.
According to local media reports, the visitors had come from the Libyan city of Garyan where they had been advising forces led by renegade General Khalifa Haftar.
Haftar, who commands forces loyal to Libya’s eastern-based government, launched an ambitious campaign in early April to capture Tripoli, where Libya’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) is based.
Separately, Zubaidi said 11 people of different European nationalities – also diplomats – had recently tried to enter Tunisian waters from Libya in two rubber life boats.
“The Tunisian navy confiscated their weapons and handed them over to the National Guard,” Zubaidi said, without saying when exactly the incident had occurred.
Ibrahim Fraihat, an associate professor of conflict resolution at the Doha Institute, told Al Jazeera that French support for Haftar has raised concerns about the extent to which foreign parties were involved in the conflict.
“French support for Haftar has taken on a new level. The presence of armed diplomats on Libyan soil suggests their backing is not only diplomatic,” he said.
“The French explanation to this, that those are the security guards of the French ambassador actually made things worse because the French ambassador is based in Tunisia, not Libya.”
Libya, which has been mired in chaos since the NATO-backed toppling of Gaddafi in 2011, has been split into rival eastern and western administrations since 2014.
Analysts say Haftar’s push on the capital threatens to further destabilise the oil-rich country and reignite a full-blown civil war.
Al Jazeera and news agencies