Three French soldiers have been killed in Libya, the French defence ministry said. They died in a helicopter crash described as accidental.

They are the first confirmed Western military casualties since it became known this year that special forces were operating on the ground in Libya, although the ministry did not say if the dead were part of those operations.

"Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian deplores the death of three non-commissioned officers while operating in Libya," the ministry said.

"He lauds the bravery and devotion of French military personnel who each day are carrying out dangerous missions against terrorists," he said.

Paris took a leading role in the NATO air campaign that helped rebels overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and French aircraft have since December been conducting reconnaissance flights.

Earlier this year, French military advisers and special forces began operating on the ground in Libya against Islamic State militants in conjunction with Britain and the United States.

French government spokesman Stephane Le Foll reiterated earlier today that special forces were operating in the North African country.

Western powers have been backing Libya's unity government, hoping it will seek foreign support to confront Islamic State militants, deal with migrant flows from Libya to Europe and restore oil production to shore up Libya's economy.

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