France’s admission that they provided weapons to the Libyan rebels isn’t very surprising. It is potentially a violation of the UN mandate, and that’s why a top commander of the rebels is refuting the report. But a spokesman for the French armed forces confirmed it.

A French military spokesperson later described the arms as “light infantry weapons of the rifle type” dropped over several days “so that civilians would not be massacred.”

“We began by dropping humanitarian aid: food, water and medical supplies,” Col. Thierry Burkhard, spokesman for the French general staff, told Agence France-Presse. “During the operation, the situation for the civilians on the ground worsened. We dropped arms and means of self-defense, mainly ammunition.”

They are trying to position the arms shipments as humanitarian aid. I really don’t think that’s going to fly in a country that has a UN embargo on munitions.

The African Union condemned the shipment as the kind of action that led to anarchy in Somalia, and a threat to the North African region. And NATO is in full damage control mode. They claim not to have known about the French airdrop, though that’s not really credible considering that they’re running a no-fly zone. NATO is “reviewing their conduct” in the campaign.

The revelation surprised officials in Nato’s headquarters in Brussels and raised awkward questions about whether the French had broken international law – UN resolution 1973 specifically allows Nato nations to protect civilians in Libya, but appears to stop short of permitting the provision of weapons.

Nato has consistently said it would not arm rebel commanders, saying it was beyond its remit. But military chiefs in Paris confirmed that French planes had dropped consignments of machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and anti-tank missiles to rebels in the western Nafusa mountains. A report in Le Figaro newspaper said the French parachuted “large amounts” of munitions to help the rebel push on Tripoli earlier this month.

Nato was also trying to establish what legal basis France had for taking this apparently unilateral action. Officials expressed surprise at what had happened and insisted its military approach had not changed. “Nato knows what its mission is, and that the mandate allows certain things,” said a source.

Britain and the US, while insisting that they had not sent any weapons, tried to come to France’s defense. They separately argued that UN resolution 1973 both supersedes a previous resolution that laid down a total arms embargo in Libya, and that the “all necessary means” clause in resolution 1973 could allow for “defensive weapons” to be provided to prevent civilian populations from attack.

A couple things here. First, in this country we take things like UN resolutions to be pretty mundane and without binding force, but that’s not true in the rest of the world, where this has actually caused an outcry. Second, the need for arms shipments shows how the entire concept of the NATO intervention, and its focus on close air support, was faulty from the start, and was never going to be able to secure the country and drive Moammar Gadhafi from power. It just wasn’t credible to think an air war would succeed. The rebels would need to be armed, they would need to be trained, and they would need to be supported. And that’s how you get, slowly, to ground forces supporting one side of a civil war. It has only happened in small quantities so far, but the slope is starting to slip.

UPDATE: Russia has now echoed the AU, saying that the shipments violate the arms embargo.