LONDON — U.K. Defense Secretary Liam Fox confirmed that a “small British diplomatic team” is in eastern Libya to try to talk to rebels but declined to comment Sunday on a report that special forces soldiers are being held there by opponents
of Moammar Gadhafi.
Fox said the government is in touch with the team in Benghazi but told BBC radio it would be “inappropriate” to comment further on an article in Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper that soldiers were captured by rebel forces when a secret mission to put British diplomats in touch with leading opponents of Libya’s embattled leader went awry.
When pressed on whether the U.K. diplomatic team was in danger, Fox reiterated that the government is in contact with the diplomatic team.
“It is a very difficult situation to be able to understand in detail,” he said. “There are a number of different opposition groups to Colonel Gadhafi in Libya who do seem relatively disparate.”
The Sunday Times reported that up to eight special forces soldiers, armed but in plain clothes, were captured while escorting a junior British diplomat through rebel-held territory in eastern Libya.
The special forces intervention angered Libyan opposition figures who ordered the soldiers to be locked up on a military base, the newspaper reported.
Fox was careful to note in the interview that any talks about establishing a no-fly zone over Libya are at “the early stage of contingency planning,” saying that more details will be discussed later in the week by leaders and NATO.
He also stressed that “there was no and there is no plan to use British land forces” in Libya.
‘SAS unit’ captured in Libya
Defence secretary Liam Fox says ‘small diplomatic team’ is in Benghazi to talk to rebels
The defence secretary, Liam Fox, has confirmed that a “small diplomatic team” is in Benghazi to talk to Libyan rebels but refused to confirm reports that any British nationals had been detained.
According to Guardian sources, a suspected British intelligence and special forces unit, which parachuted in about four days ago, was caught near the town of Khandra, about 20 miles west of Benghazi.
A senior member of Benghazi’s revolutionary council said: “They were carrying espionage equipment, reconnaissance equipment, multiple passports and weapons. This is no way to conduct yourself during an uprising.
“Gaddafi is bringing in thousands of mercenaries to kill us, most are using foreign passports and how do we know who these people are?
“They say they’re British nationals and some of the passports they have are British. But the Israelis used British passports to kill that man in Dubai last year.”
Rebel leaders claimed the captives were being treated well and would be released as soon as the British government vouched for their identity with the rebel command.
The news follows Sunday Times claims that an SAS unit was being held by rebel forces it had approached in an attempt to open up diplomatic channels to opponents of Muammar Gaddafi.
Fox refused to give any more details on the diplomatic team’s mission in the eastern area of the country, which is controlled by rebel forces: “We are in touch with them but I’m not going to be giving further comment on that.”
Whitehall sources said on Friday it needed to learn more about the leadership of the anti-Gaddafi forces and find out what logistical support they needed, but would not give arms to the rebels, as an international arms embargo was in place.
Fox said: “It is a very difficult situation to be able to understand in detail. There are a number of different opposition groups to Colonel Gaddafi inLibya who do seem relatively disparate.
“We want to clearly understand what the dynamic is here because we want to be able to work with them to ensure the demise of the Gaddafi regime, to see a transition to greater stability in Libya and ultimately to more representative government.
“So getting a picture of that is relatively difficult, as is widely reported. Communications are being interrupted, there are difficulties with mobile phones, with the internet potentially being interfered with.
“So we are trying to build a picture – it’s essential that the government does that and it’s essential that all western governments do that so we are able to get a clearer idea of what we are able to do in terms of helping the people of Libya.”
The Sunday Times reported Libyan and British sources confirming the SAS unit had been detained by rebel forces it had approached to secure a meeting with a junior diplomat to offer help in their fight against Gaddafi. The mission backfired when rebel leaders in Benghazi objected to foreign interference from governments which had not yet formally recognised them as Libya’s legitimate rulers, it said.
Spokesmen for the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office refused to confirm or deny the Sunday Times report.
The international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, refused to comment about the SAS unit when questioned on Radio 5 Live.
When asked if it was possible a diplomat was there for talks, he replied: “It is perfectly possible that the Foreign Office will be trying to open links with all the rebel forces there.”
The foreign secretary, William Hague, urged Gaddafi to put an “immediate stop” to the use of armed force against Libyans.
“Given the continued levels of illegitimate violence within Libya we call upon Colonel Gaddafi to put an immediate stop to the use of armed force against the Libyan people,” he said.
“He must hand over power without delay to a government which fully recognises the legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people.
“The UK reiterates its support for the transition to a government that will deliver greater democracy, justice, transparency, human rights and accountability in Libya.”
Heavy gunfire has erupted in Tripoli, with hundreds of Gaddafi’s supporters pouring into the streets. Libyan authorities said the gunfire was to celebrate the recapture of cities including Ras Lanuf.