Sunday, March 6, 2011

UK: Misunderstanding stymied SAS mission to Libya

LONDON (AP) -- Britain is blaming a misunderstanding for a bungled mission to contact Libya's opposition that ended with eight people detained and the U.K. ambassador's humbling apology broadcast on Libyan state television.

Foreign Secretary William Hague - who authorized the operation - told lawmakers the diplomatic team and their military escorts had been briefly held by rebel forces after they were seized last week.

"They were withdrawn yesterday after a serious misunderstanding about their role leading to their temporary detention," Hague told legislators Monday in Parliament.

The team included SAS special forces soldiers and diplomatic officials. Hague's ministry would not confirm whether the officials sent to forge links with anti-Gadhafi forces were intelligence officers or diplomats.

Hague said the group had met with Mustafa Abdel Jalil, a former justice minister and now head of the National Libyan Council - the political wing of anti-Gadhafi groups.

He said opposition figures had "welcomed the idea" of establishing diplomatic ties, and confirmed other officials will be sent to eastern Libya to cement relations. Hague said Britain also continues to have contact with members of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's regime.

Hague warned lawmakers that Libya faced a protracted conflict and said there were credible reports that Gadhafi's forces had used helicopter gunships against civilians and kidnapped members of the public in Tripoli.

"Gadhafi must put an immediate stop to the use of armed force against civilians and hand over power without delay to a government which recognizes the aspirations of the Libyan people," Hague said.

Menzies Campbell, a former leader of the Liberal Democrats - junior coalition partner to Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives - said the mission had been "ill conceived, poorly planned and embarrassingly executed."

The chaotic British operation follows the capture of three Dutch marines and their helicopter during a failed evacuation mission last week. The detained Dutch soldiers are still being held by Gadhafi loyalists after they were seized Thursday near Sirte, a stronghold of the Libyan leader.

Cameron has been accused of acting too slowly in authorizing the evacuation of British nationals, and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates condemned "loose talk" over military options shortly after the U.K. leader called for a no-fly zone to be established over Libya.

Hague said contingency planning will be discussed at a NATO meeting later this week and confirmed Britain and allies were working on a draft U.N. Security Council resolution to impose a possible no-fly zone.

The British diplomatic team was detained Thursday by Libyan rebels after landing unannounced in a helicopter near the main eastern city of Benghazi. Opposition officials challenged the group - believing them to be mercenaries - and held them after discovering they were armed.

In a telephone call to an opposition spokesman, Britain's ambassador to Libya, Richard Northern, pleaded for the group to be released. The conversation was apparently intercepted by Libya's government and broadcast on state television.

Northern told an unidentified spokesman for Jalil that the British team had hoped to prepare the way for diplomats to establish formal links to the opposition.

"I understand that there has been a misunderstanding," Northern said in an excerpt of the call broadcast on Libyan TV. He asked if there was "anything we can do to help explain who they are and what they were doing," and whether Jalil could intervene to secure their release.

The unnamed opposition spokesman told Northern the group made "a big mistake coming in with a helicopter."

Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, spokesman for the rebels' national council, said eight people with British passports were arrested, including one who claimed to be a British diplomat. He said the group had been detained "because they came into the country unofficially without previous arrangement."

Robin Horsfall, who served with the SAS between 1978 and 1984, said it wasn't right to assume the mission had been a failure, and claimed the rebels had little choice but to make a public show of detaining the British team.

"It's very important for the revolutionaries to establish that it is their own house, and to show that they aren't in thrall to any foreign government," said Horsfall.

He said Britain had been right to send a team to make contact with opposition figures, and explained it would be normal for six or seven troops to accompany a diplomat.

"Someone took a bold decision at the Foreign Office to put in a young diplomat, and young soldiers to protect them," he said.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe also welcomed the creation of the rebel National Council and spoke Saturday with council member Abdel Fattah-Younis.


Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this report

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