Cameron flies back from Gulf tour amid anger at slow reaction


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David Cameron yesterday apologised for the Government's flat-footed response to the plight of British nationals stranded in Libya as he flew back to chair an emergency meeting of his new National Security Council (NSC).

Nick Clegg was returning early from a skiing holiday to attend the meeting as ministers went into overdrive to get a grip on the evacuation process.

Mr Cameron spoke to Barack Obama on the phone last night and their conversation included a discussion of "possible multilateral measures" that could be taken against Libya. The UN Security Council meets today to discuss what can be done to deter Muammar Gaddafi's violent crackdown. Sanctions are among the options.

Mr Cameron had earlier said the world must consider "the full range of options" against Libya if violent repression continues. He added that he wanted to tell Colonel Gaddafi: "What on earth do you think you are doing? Stop it."

After heavy criticism of the Foreign Office's slow response to the chaos, Mr Cameron apologised for not acting sooner to try to evacuate Britons from Libya. "What I want to say to those people is I am extremely sorry," he said.

He later added: "There is nothing more important than getting British nationals, our own citizens, out of Libya and safely back home." The Prime Minister said Foreign Office staff had been "working round the clock" and were doing an "extremely difficult job". By late last night the Foreign Office said it had helped more than 350 Britons get out of Libya yesterday, while another 48 were known to be on a US ferry in Tripoli harbour.

Mr Cameron added: "Obviously we need to do more, we need to do everything possible to get those people home. There are going to be lessons to be learnt from this." He dismissed as a "throwaway line" a comment by Mr Clegg in an interview that he "forgot" he was running the country in the absence of his boss.

But in a sign of how seriously the Government is now taking the crisis, Mr Clegg was flying back from holiday after just two days to attend the NSC meeting. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has cancelled a trip to America to oversee the repatriation effort. Mr Hague chaired a meeting of the Government's Cobra emergency committee in Whitehall yesterday.

After the meeting, the Defence Secretary Liam Fox said flying Britons home was the Government's priority: "We have used military assets to assist that and make sure we can get more of our citizens out more quickly, and that will continue throughout the day." But in a sign of the continued confusion in government, the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt appeared to confirm that the SAS was on stand-by and could be deployed to help the rescue mission.

While the Ministry of Defence refused to comment on the movements of the Special Forces, Mr Hunt sought to stress the Government's proactive response to events. He said: "The most significant news is the SAS troops that are now ready to spring into action.

The Labour leader Ed Miliband attacked the Government's mishandling of the situation: "They will need to learn lessons about the speed of response because it is obvious other countries did respond more quickly."