British team leaves Libya after 'difficulties': minister

7th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

Britain said a "small diplomatic team" had left the Libyan city of Benghazi after trying to contact opposition forces, as rebels there made it clear they had refused to talk to them.

"I can confirm that a small British diplomatic team has been in Benghazi," Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement on Sunday.

"The team went to Libya to initiate contacts with the opposition. They experienced difficulties, which have now been satisfactorily resolved. They have now left Libya."

Despite the botched mission, Hague promised to forge links with the rebels and echoed Prime Minister David Cameron's earlier demand for Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi to step down.

"We intend, in consultation with the opposition, to send a further team to strengthen our dialogue in due course," Hague said.

"We continue to press for Kadhafi to step down and we will work with the international community to support the legitimate ambitions of the Libyan people."

A defence ministry spokesman earlier reiterated the standing policy that it did not comment on operational matters relating to the special forces.

In Benghazi itself, a rebel spokesman said they had refused to talk to the delegation because they had entered the country without making any prior arrangements.

"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 in the rebel stronghold.

The Britons left Benghazi for Malta on board the Royal Navy frigate HMS Cumberland, Sky and BBC news reported.

While Hague had described the Britons as "a small diplomatic team" Ghoqa said: "One person claims he is a diplomat and he has some guards accompanying him.

"Eight persons were arrested and it turns out that they carried British passports. The reason that they were arrested is that they came into the country unofficially and without any previous arrangement."

The team had come into Libya by helicopter, landing in Suluk, a small town southwest of Benghazi, he said.

The Guardian newspaper Monday said the team comprised six SAS troops and two officials from the MI6 intelligence agency.

The delegation was captured near the al-Khadra Farm Company, 18 miles (30 kilometres) south-west of Benghazi, it said.

Britain's ambassador to Libya, Richard Northern, told a senior rebel leader that the incident had been a "misunderstanding," in a recording aired by Libyan state of what it described as a telephone conversation.

"They made a big mistake, coming with a helicopter in an open area," the rebel leader said in the recording, prompting Northern to say he "didn't know how they were coming."

The Sunday Times had reported that the uninvited appearance of the SAS alongside the diplomat "angered Libyan opposition figures who ordered the soldiers to be locked up in a military base".

Opponents of Kadhafi "fear he could use any evidence of Western military interference to rally patriotic support for his regime", the weekly broadsheet added.

A British source told the weekly that the diplomat they were protecting had wanted to make contact with the rebels ahead of a visit a more senior colleague.

British service personnel have already been involved in the rescue of British nationals working on oil installations in remote desert camps.

© 2011 AFP

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