Exclusive: From Helmand to Libya: British commander joins rebel fight against Gaddafi

Deployment of troops sparks fears of 'mission creep'

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The Independent Online

One of the most battle-hardened commanders in the British Army, with extensive experience of combat in Afghanistan, is being sent to Libya to organise the rebels in their flagging campaign against Muammar Gaddafi's forces, The Independent has learnt.

The senior officer will be part of a team of 20 civil and military advisers based in the opposition capital Benghazi to try to bolster the opposition, which is beset by severe humanitarian problems and is failing to make any military headway.

Armed British troops are being sent to Libya for the first time to help rebels to break the increasingly bloody deadlock in the battle for control of the country. The colonel, a "high-flyer" whose identity cannot be disclosed for security reasons, has been decorated for bravery and leadership in Helmand where troops under his command took part in one of the most fierce and sustained periods of action by any UK unit in recent times. Dispatching the officer, along with a team hand-picked for their track records in their specialist fields, is seen as a sign of Britain's commitment to the provisional government. It will, however, bring accusations of "mission creep" with the possibility of ground troops being deployed in the bloody civil war.

MPs from all parties demanded yesterday that Parliament be recalled to discuss the development. The decision to send the troops was taken at a meeting of the National Security Council chaired by David Cameron on Monday. Senior government figures are increasingly frustrated by the inability of air strikes, sanctions and defections to break the stalemate.

Defence and diplomatic sources last night stressed that the military team will stay in Benghazi and not deploy with rebel forces on operations. They also insist that there are no plans at the moment for UK personnel to take part in the training of rebels.

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said that the British team could be deployed within the bounds of UN Resolution 1973. The French government may consider a similar move.

The French government has gained much approval from the rebels for the early support it provided – so much so that air strikes are known as "Sarkozis". Foreign Minister Alain Juppé declared yesterday that the situation was "difficult" and "confused" and that the West had underestimated Colonel Gaddafi's ability to adapt his tactics in response to the Nato intervention.

The British team in Libya has spent the past few weeks setting up a secure communications system between Benghazi and Nato headquarters to co-ordinate Western air strikes. The opposition administration in Libya, and the head of their military force, General Abdel-Fatah Younis, had been severely critical of Nato after a series of "friendly fire" incidents which resulted in the deaths of rebel fighters.

There had also been complaints from General Younis, a former minister in the Gaddafi regime, that Nato has been slow to carry out attacks on regime troops on information supplied by his forces. However, much of his claims of passing on relevant details have, on examination, proved to be bogus.

Britain has also supplied 1,000 sets of body armour and 100 satellite telephones. They have, however, been handed over to the provisional government – the interim council – which has failed to pass them on to Misrata, which has been under a brutal siege for the past seven weeks and where revolutionaries have resolutely repulsed repeated attacks by regime forces. The equipment has instead stayed in Benghazi and eastern Libya where the rebels have shown a remarkable degree of disorganisation and ineptitude.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Liberal Democrat leader, recalled that US involvement in Vietnam began with military advisers. "Sending advisers for a limited purpose is probably within the terms of Resolution 1973, but it must not be seen as a first instalment of further military deployment," he said. "Vietnam began with an American president sending military advisers. We must proceed with caution."

The backbench Labour MP David Winnick added: "However much one despises the brutality of the Gaddafi clan which rules Libya, the fact remains that there is a danger of mission creep. There is a civil war in Libya and this is a big escalation of Britain's involvement. I don't think there is an appetite in Britain for military intervention."

The Tory MP Peter Bone said Parliament should be recalled, and that "parliamentary authority" must be taken into account in any move to put British troops on the ground in a rapidly changing situation. "If we had known all these facts when Parliament took the first vote, I'm not entirely sure we'd have had the overwhelming majority support the Government," he said. "I'm not saying whether this is right or wrong. I am saying that Parliament should be recalled to discuss what is clearly a totally different picture.

"We are now looking at regime change and clearly backing the rebels. We seem to be taking sides in a civil war. That may well be right, but it is not for the Government to decide, it is for Parliament to decide."

Mr Hague insisted that the military advisers did not constitute "boots on the ground", and that it was not necessary to recall Parliament during recess since the policy in Libya had not changed. "This is an expansion of the diplomatic presence we have in Benghazi," Mr Hague said. "It's to help the Transitional National Council in Benghazi with organisational structures, with logistics: how to deliver humanitarian aid, medical supplies.

"I stress it's not training fighting forces or arming them or equipping them but it is to help them organise themselves to protect civilian life. It's not boots on the ground, it's not fighting forces, these are not people to fight on the battlefield. These are people to advise on organisation, which is what they specialise in, how to organise HQ structures," he added.

"We operate strictly within the resolution which forbids any occupation force in any part of Libya. We will always respect that. There's going to be no deployment of ground forces to fight in Libya. This is not what this is about."

Following the February revolution, the opposition said it did not want military help from abroad. The streets of Benghazi still have signs, now fraying, stating: "No to foreign intervention, Libyans can do it alone". However a series of reverses, and the near capture of Benghazi by Gaddafi's troops, led the rebels to ask for a no-fly zone and then Western air strikes. This has now moved on to demand for advanced weapons and the acceptance that this will involve training.