Britain mum on reports SAS troops held in Libya

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Britain on Sunday refused to confirm a report that Special Air Service soldiers and a diplomat were being held in Benghazi but revealed that a "small British diplomatic team" was in Libya's second city.

The Sunday Times newspaper said the SAS unit, reportedly up to eight men, were captured along with the diplomat they were escorting through the rebel-held east and who was seeking contact with opponents of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.

"We can neither confirm nor deny the report," a Foreign Office spokeswoman told AFP.

The defence ministry said it did not comment on the special forces, while Defence Secretary Liam Fox told BBC television: "I can confirm that a small British diplomatic team is in Benghazi.

"We are in touch with them but it would be inappropriate for me to comment further," he added.

For his part, Mustafa Gheriani, spokesman for the rebels' self-declared national council in Libya's second city of Benghazi, refused to comment.

"I have absolutely nothing to say," he told AFP.

The Sunday Times claimed 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.

The Sunday Times said a British source, who confirmed the men had been detained, said the diplomat they were protecting had wanted to make contact with the rebels to prepare the way for a visit by a senior colleague.

It cited a source close to the opposition leadership as saying rebel officials were worried that Libyan people might think from the escort party that "foreign troops have started to interfere by landing in Libya."

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

Prime Minister David Cameron last week said Western countries should be stepping up contact with the Libyan opposition to gain a greater understanding of their intentions.

Foreign Secretary William Hague held telephone talks Wednesday with General Abdel Fatah Yunis, the former Libyan interior minister who defected, about the situation on the ground.

In a statement Sunday, Hague called upon Kadhafi "to put an immediate stop to the use of armed force against the Libyan people".

He added: "The UK reiterates its support for the transition to a government that will deliver greater democracy, justice, transparency, human rights and accountability in Libya."

Libyan state television on Sunday said forces loyal to Kadhafi had recaptured a string of key towns in claims quickly denied by rebels as heavy gunfire rocked the capital Tripoli.

In Britain on Saturday, the defence ministry said about 200 troops had been placed on standby to help with evacuation and humanitarian operations in Libya.

The troops from the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, are ready for deployment at 24 hours' notice, a spokeswoman said.

However a YouGov poll of 2,413 adults for The Sunday Times found low support for using troops in Libya.

© 2011 AFP

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