Smarting from criticism that some of its top officials have had too cozy a relationship with foreign despots, the French government said it is sending medical aid via airplanes to Benghazi in eastern Libya to help groups opposed to Moammar Gaddafi.

France described the measure as the beginning of a massive operation to support Gaddafi’s opponents to topple the Libyan dictator.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon said two airplanes will carry doctors, nurses, medicine and medical equipment to help Libyans in what he called liberated areas.

He also said that France might support a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over Libya.

Fillon’s announcement came shortly after another prominent French government official, Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, resigned amidst questions over her contacts with top member of the former Tunisian regime.

Alliot-Marie reportedly offered French assistance to stamp out the uprising in Tunisia. She also took a Christmas holiday in Tunisia during the revolt there, taking flights on a private jet owned by a businessman with close links to the Ben Ali regime.

However, the Prime Minister insisted Alliot-Marie had done nothing wrong.

She was not at fault, he said. This was not a moral decision, but a political one. The voice of France was no longer audible, because Michele Alliot-Marie had become the object of an unjust campaign.
Alliot-Marie defended herself and claimed she was the victim of a political conspiracy to remove her from power.

For several weeks, I have been the target of political attacks and then in the media, using, to create suspicion, counter-truths and generalizations, she wrote. For the last two weeks, it is my family's private life that has been suffering real harassment at the hands of certain media. I cannot accept that some people use this campaign to try to make people believe in a weakening of France's international policy.

She will be replaced by the Defense Minister Alain Juppe, who previously served as foreign minister and prime minister in the 1990s.

Ironically, in 2004, Juppe was convicted of mishandling public funds.

The new defense minister will be Gerard Longuet, who was the head leader of the ruling UMP party in the Senate and a long-time associate of President Nicholas Sarkozy.

Also, Sarkozy’s chief of staff, Claude Gueant, will become interior minister to replace Brice Hortefeux, who has been convicted of racism and contempt of court while in office.

Meanwhile, Eastern Libya (which contains the country’s key oilfields) has reportedly come under the control of the opposition, buoyed by the defection of large numbers of military personnel and police.

The leaders of the rebel group say they to form a national council to govern the cities under their control. They have also permitted oil shipments to resume from their territories.