PARIS (Reuters) - The head of France’s special forces said on Thursday his units were directly involved in street battles in Mosul’s Old City but denied they were specifically targeting French-born jihadis fighting for Islamic State.
The Wall Street Journal reported last month that French citizens had been killed by Iraqi artillery and ground troops using location coordinates and other intelligence supplied by French special forces during the battle to drive the extremist group from the Iraqi city of Mosul.
About 700 French nationals are fighting in Islamic State ranks in Iraq and Syria. French officials have in the past said their priority on the ground was to ensure they did not return to their homeland to carry out attacks.
“We don’t do specific targeting. It makes no sense,” Vice-admiral Laurent Isnard, who heads up the Special Forces Command (COS), told reporters in a rare exchange.
“We’re facing fighters. We’re in tiny streets, districts and are attacking the medina. We’re on the frontline and are dealing with people who we come across. How are you supposed to know who is in front of you beforehand? They don’t stand exposed with their biography,” he said.
France, the first country to join U.S.-led air strikes in Iraq, carries out aerial operations against Islamic State from its bases in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
It also has dozens of special forces operating in the region, provides weapons to Iraqi Kurds and has deployed artillery to support Iraqi troops.
“The objective is to take back streets, districts and houses,” he said.
Isnard said French forces were sharing intelligence with Iraqis, but solely to assess “how the enemy was organised.”
The “liberation” of Mosul from Islamic State will be announced in a few days, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Thursday.
Reporting by Sophie Louet; writing by John Irish; Editing by Janet Lawrence