LONDON (AFP) – The government was left red-faced on Monday after a botched attempt by special forces to make contact with opposition forces in Libya ended in the team being seized by rebels.
The team, reportedly made up of six soldiers from the elite SAS and two diplomats, flew into Libya by helicopter and made their way to the opposition-held city of Benghazi.
But they were rounded up by lightly armed rebels soon after they arrived, reports said.
The diplomats are believed to have been MI6 officers whose mission was to contact rebel leaders and open the way for a delegation.
But they succeeded only in angering Libyan opposition leaders who said they had not asked for any help, and by late Sunday they had been packed off to Malta on a British naval ship.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague is to make a statement to lawmakers on the operation later on Monday.
After the government initially kept silent on the affair, Hague confirmed on Sunday that “a small diplomatic team has been in Benghazi” and said their intention had been “to initiate contacts with the opposition”.
“They experienced difficulties, which have now been satisfactorily resolved. They have now left Libya,” he added.
However, Hague insisted that Britain intended to send “a further team to strengthen our dialogue in due course” although he stressed this would be done in cooperation with the Libyan opposition.
In Benghazi itself, 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 in the rebel stronghold.
The Britons left Benghazi for Malta on board the Royal Navy frigate HMS Cumberland, reports said.
The bungled operation raised eyebrows because Britain prides itself on the competence of the SAS, which is believed to play a major role in the conflict in Afghanistan as well as in past wars in Iraq and the Falklands.
The Times asked why the SAS had felt it 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.
The Daily Telegraph, traditionally a pro-armed forces newspaper, said the mission was a “blunder” which had handed a propaganda coup to Libyan leader Mummer Gaddafi.
Britain’s government has made a faltering start to its handling of the Libyan crisis.
Prime Minister David Cameron banged the drum for the imposition of a no-fly zone last week, only to backtrack rapidly to say it was no more than “contingency planning”.
And in the first days of the revolt, Hague drew fire for suggesting that Gaddafi had fled to Venezuela.