In a separate incident, the defence ministry said 11 people of different European nationalities also tried to enter Tunisian waters from Libya in two rubber dinghies.
Since the incidents occurred, there have been various explanations given by the countries involved, including allegations that the men were assisting Libya’s renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar, whose forces this month attempted to seize the capital, Tripoli.
The battle for the city against troops from the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) still rages on.
Al Jazeera, which obtained copies of the 13 French nationals’ diplomatic passports, has interviewed sources from all three nations involved in the incident. Here is their account of events.
Libyan sources said the armed French nationals briefly detained in Tunisia were military specialists stationed at the al-Watiya air force base in western Libya, which is used by Haftar’s Libyan National Army.
After the airbase came under attack by GNA forces, the 13 French citizens fled to Tunisia by land – illegally crossing the border – en route to reach the Tunisian island of Djerba, from where they planned to fly to France, sources said.
The Frenchmen – carrying weapons and ammunition – were stopped at the border after Tunisian authorities discovered they were armed. But after an intervention by high-ranking unnamed officials, sources said, the French nationals were escorted to Djerba’s airport and they departed to France.
Radio France Internationale (RFI) quoted an unnamed source in the office of Tunisia’s presidency as saying the French and other Europeans stopped at the Libyan-Tunisian border crossing of Ras Jedir were intelligence officers, not diplomats as stated by France.
The Tunisian source expressed dismay at the European’s behaviour, calling it a violation of Tunisia’s sovereignty, adding Djerba had become a “staging area” for foreign intelligence agencies.
But Saida Qarash, the spokeswoman of the Tunisian presidency, denied the RFI report, saying the news organisation went with the story without confirming it with another official source. She said the issue of “European diplomats” was settled through legal and diplomatic channels.
The Tunisian foreign ministry earlier quoted the ministers of defence and the interior as saying the 13 Frenchmen carrying diplomatic passports were searched and their weapons and ammunition confiscated, in accordance with legal procedures.
A spokeswoman for the French ministry of foreign affairs denied in a phone call with Al Jazeera that the 13 French nationals were members of French intelligence.
She said the men were part of the security detail guarding the French embassy in Tripoli.
She said the security team’s movements were coordinated with Tunisian authorities, and it was routine to have members of the French embassy in Libya travel between the two countries.
However, Mustafa Fetouri, a Libyan academic based in Paris, cast doubt on the official French explanation for the border incident.
“This particular incident is very unclear. The French claim that it is the guard of the embassy in Tripoli, but the building itself is closed – there are no operations there. The French government only recently allowed its employees, including the aid services, to go back to Libya. It doesn’t make sense to say they are the guards of the embassy,” Fetouri told Al Jazeera.
But he added: “It also doesn’t make sense to say they are actively involved with these operations helping Mr Haftar on the other side, because it would have been much safer for him just to take them to eastern Libya, and they could fly out of the country from there.”