Britain said on Sunday that a “small diplomatic team” who were reportedly being held in Benghazi after trying to “initiate contacts” with opposition rebels had left Libya after experiencing “difficulties.”
The team comprising a junior diplomat and a Special Air Service (SAS) unit was seeking contact with opponents of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, according to The Sunday Times newspaper, as it reported their capture earlier.
The newspaper 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 Qaddafi “fear he could use any evidence of Western military interference to rally patriotic support for his regime”, the weekly broadsheet added.
“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 junior diplomat was preparing the way for a visit by a more senior colleague in an attempt to establish diplomatic contact with the rebels, the newspaper said. “We can neither confirm nor deny the report,” a Foreign Office spokeswoman told AFP earlier.
Libyan rebels say they ‘refused’ to talk to the British delegation which was detained after landing in the country, an opposition spokesman said Sunday.
In Benghazi, a correspondent for the BBC said he had been informed that a helicopter carrying six people dressed in black and carrying weapons had landed in the region in the early hours of Friday.
“These six people who came off the plane were in black clothing which make them sound like they were SAS forces,” he told BBC television.
“The opposition has an understanding of the situation that these people are not hostile people. The problem was to arriving on a helicopter, in the middle of the night, carrying weapons. You can understand the sort of fear that provoked here,” the correspondent added.
The defence ministry said it did not comment on operation matters relating to the special forces. For his part, Mustafa Gheriani, spokesman for the rebels’ self-declared national council in Benghazi, refused to comment.
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.
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.
However a YouGov poll of 2,413 adults for The Sunday Times found low support for using troops in Libya.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 7th, 2011.