British team leaves Libya after 'difficulties': ministry

6th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

Britain Sunday 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.

"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."

The Sunday Times had reported that a junior British diplomat and members of the elite British Special Air Service (SAS) escorting him had been detained by Libyan opposition forces as they tried to contact Libyan opposition 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 Benghazi.

"Now we're trying to negotiate a way for them to go back home."

Earlier, a Libyan opposition spokesman had said they had been detained but were safe and well.

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.

According to Sky and BBC news reports, the Britons left Benghazi for Malta on board the Royal Navy frigate HMS Cumberland.

Earlier Sunday, a Libyan opposition spokesman confirmed that several British soldiers and a diplomat had been detained after landing in rebel-held Libya.

"It created some confusion in the beginning because we didn't know whether they were with us or against us," the spokesman told AFP.

In Benghazi, BBC correspondent Jon Leyne said he had been informed that a helicopter carrying six people had landed in the region in the early hours of Friday.

"These six people who came off the plane were in black clothings which make them sound like they were SAS forces," he told BBC television.

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

Britain's ambassador to Libya, Richard Northern, told a senior rebel leader that the incident had been a "misunderstanding," during a telephone conversation which was leaked and aired by Libyan State TV earlier Sunday.

"They made a big mistake, coming with a helicopter in an open area," the rebel leader responded.

Northern later admitted that 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.

The newspaper said that according to Libyan sources, the SAS soldiers were taken by rebels to Benghazi, held by the opposition, and hauled up before a senior figure.

A British source confirmed to the newspaper that the men had been detained and said the diplomat they were protecting had wanted to make contact with the rebels ahead of a visit a more senior colleague.

Despite the setback, Hague promised to forge links with the rebels and echoed Prime Minister David Cameron's earlier demand for 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," the foreign minister said.

© 2011 AFP

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