CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Divers have begun bringing up artifacts from the wreckage of a French ship that sank in 1798 while on either a research or spy mission for Napoleon.

Denis Louche, the French cultural attache, said Tuesday in a statement announcing the salvage operation that the Patriote was a research vessel on a cultural and scientific expedition to Egypt.

The state-owned newspaper Al-Goumhouria quoted an Egyptian expert as saying it was a spy ship whose loss denied Napoleon vital intelligence that might have enabled his fleet to defeat Lord Nelson in the Battle of the Nile.

Nelson's victory of Abukir stranded the French army in Egypt and ended Napoleon's plan for cutting England off from its rich empire east of Suez.

Louche's statement said the Patriote wreckage was found Sunday off Agami, about 20 miles west of Alexandria, the Egyptian port on the Mediterranean.

He said divers from the French navy minesweeper Vinh Longh had brought up two cannons, a copper-and-ebony navigation tool and instruments intended for the scientific and cultural expedition.

The recovery operation is part of a larger effort begun in 1983 to locate Napoleon's sunken fleet off Abukir, 15 miles east of Alexandria. It is sponsored by France in cooperation with the Egyptian Antiquities Organization.

The Vinh Longh used electronic sensing equipment to find Napoleon's flagship, the Orient, in 1983 and was called in last week to help salvage the Patriote.

Al-Goumhouria said the ship smashed into a rock and sank July 4, 1798, while reconnoitering for the French invasion Napoleon led that same month.

''Because of the loss of the Patriote and its basic strategic information ... Nelson successfully besieged Napoleon's fleet,'' the paper quoted Egyptian antiquities expert Abdallah el-Attar as saying.

Nelson destroyed the French fleet at Abukir on Aug. 1-2, 1798. The land victory by the forces of Gen. Sir Ralph Abercromby in 1801 ended Napoleon's venture in the Middle East.