FRANCE began parachuting weapons to resupply Libyan rebels in the mountains south of the capital, Tripoli, last month, a French military spokesman confirmed yesterday.

Citing secret government focuments, Le Figaro newspaper reported earlier that the shipments included rocket launchers, assault rifles, machine guns and anti-tank missiles.

The secret desert air drops were carried out without consultation with NATO allies, including Britain, which is France’s principal partner in the international campaign against Moamar Ghadafi’s regime, the report said.

Colonel Thierry Burkhard, spokesman for the French general staff, confirmed the arms drops, but said they were essentially light arms such as assault rifles for self-defense purposes, AFP reported.

Burkhard said France had become aware in early June that rebel-held Berber villages in the tribal Djebel Nafusa highland region south of the capital had come under pressure from forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi.

“We began by dropping humanitarian aid: food, water and medical supplies,” he said. “During the operation, the situation for the civilians on the ground worsened. We dropped arms and means of self-defense, mainly ammunition.”

Burkhard described the arms as “light infantry weapons of the rifle type” and said the drops were carried out over several days “so that civilians would not be massacred.”

According to Le Figaro’s report, the French government was looking for a way of breaking the stalemate in the conflict. “There was no other way of going forward,” a senior intelligence source said.

The rebels in the tribal Djebel Nafusa region relied on Qatar and other Gulf states for previous overland shipments.

The French air drops were credited with helping the Berber tribesmen make significant gains against regime forces, securing a large area extending from the Tunisian border to the outskirts of Ghariani, just 50 kilometers from Gaddafi’s stronghold.

“If the rebels reach the outskirts of Tripoli, the capital will not miss the chance to rise up against Gaddafi,” according to Le Figaro’s source. “The regime’s mercenaries are no longer being paid and scarcely fed. There’s a severe fuel shortage – the people can’t take any more.”

In Tuesday fighting around the southwestern mountains, the rebels captured a major regime weapons dump in the desert, about 25 kilometers from Zintan, further strengthening their advance.

Despite the rebel successes, the chief of the NATO operation in Libya, Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, has dismissed any scaling back of the allied campaign to protect Libyan civilians from Gaddafi.

NATO took command of operations March 31, replacing a Western coalition led by the US, France and Britain, that had launched the first air raids two weeks earlier.