Britain's Libya mission botched after 'misunderstanding'

7th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

The seizing of a British special forces team in a bungled mission to contact Libyan rebels was due to a "serious misunderstanding", Foreign Secretary William Hague said Monday.

London was left red-faced by the attempt to put diplomats in contact with opposition forces in Benghazi at the weekend.

The team, reportedly made up of six soldiers from the elite Special Air Service (SAS) and two diplomats, flew into Libya by helicopter and made their way to the eastern opposition-held city.

But they were rounded up by lightly armed rebels soon after they arrived, reports said.

The diplomats are believed to have been officers from Britain's MI6 foreign intelligence service.

The mission angered Libyan opposition leaders who denied they had asked for any help and by late Sunday the team had been packed off to Malta on a British naval ship.

Hague told parliament that ministers and officials had been in touch with the rebel interim national council formed in Benghazi, who had "welcomed the idea of a British diplomatic mission to Libya".

The minister said he had authorised the dispatch of a small team, accompanied by "protection" because such engagement was "vitally important" to understanding the situation on the ground.

"They were withdrawn yesterday after a serious misunderstanding about their role leading to their temporary detention," Hague said.

"This situation was resolved and they were able to meet council president Mr Abdel Jalil.

"However it was clearly better for this team to be withdrawn. We intend to send further diplomats to eastern Libya in due course."

In Benghazi, an opposition spokesman said the rebels had refused to talk to the delegation because they had entered the country without prior permission.

"We do not know the nature of their mission. We refused to discuss anything with them due to the way they entered the country," spokesman Abdul Hafiz Ghoqa told reporters.

The bungled operation raised eyebrows because Britain prides itself on the highly skilled SAS, which is believed to play a major role in the conflict in Afghanistan and has operated in past wars in Iraq and the Falklands.

The Times newspaper asked why it was felt necessary to carry out such a cloak-and-dagger operation when it would have been possible for the team to simply drive into Benghazi.

"Nabbed while escorting a junior diplomat in a city that would have welcomed them... this was not their finest hour," the newspaper said.

Britain's government has been accused of having a shaky grasp on the Libyan crisis.

The SAS incident was "just the latest setback" amid some "serial bungling" by the government, Labour opposition foreign affairs spokesman Douglas Alexander told Hague in parliament.

"Ministerial decisions have generated an embarrassment that could all too easily have become a tragedy."

To laughter, Alexander asked whether if new neighbours moved into Hague's street, "he would introduce himself by ringing the doorbell or instead choose to climb over the fence in the middle of the night."

© 2011 AFP

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