British special forces last night mounted a daring rescue of 150 civilians trapped in the Libyan desert.
As the security situation deteriorated, SAS troops were deployed to evacuate oil workers from several isolated desert camps south of Benghazi.
One senior source said: "It had been planned for a few days, covering an area four and half times the size of the UK." Landing strips near remote oilfields had to be secured, with stranded civilians collected from several sites. The rescue was ordered by David Cameron, who chaired a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee yesterday morning.
Two RAF C130 Hercules aircraft airlifted the rescued workers – understood to be mostly Britons – to Valletta, Malta, where they were met by Red Cross staff and consular officials. After a week of gruelling and dangerous conditions, they were offered food, water and medical help. The Foreign Office will charter a flight to the UK today or tomorrow.
The British embassy in Tripoli has also been closed "in light of the deteriorating situation". Richard Northern, the British ambassador to Libya, has left. Lauren Johnstone, the British pro consul, remains as the UK's only diplomat in Tripoli. It follows the suspension of operations by the United States and Australia. Embassy staff were evacuated on the last flight out of Libya chartered by the British government, and which returned to Gatwick with about 100 passengers, including 53 British nationals, on board.
Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, said: "A number of other military assets remain available to support the FCO-led efforts to return civilians from Libya." British citizens still trapped in Libya will be offered help by the Turkish government, though the Foreign Office could not say how many remain. "We continue to urge any remaining British citizens in Libya who have not done so already to provide the Foreign Office with their names, location and contact details immediately," a spokesman said.
HMS Cumberland will return to Benghazi today. The Royal Navy frigate is returning to the port – which is in opposition hands – ready to help any others fleeing the bloody chaos in which at least 1,000 people are thought to have been killed.
HMS York took on board stores in Valletta yesterday and is also on its way back to Libya. Royal Marines are believed to be on board, providing protection.
Yesterday's raid marks the end of a difficult week for the Foreign Office, which has faced fierce criticism of its handling of the crisis.
Downing Street sources acknowledged that there had been a "sluggish start" to efforts to help Britons out of Libya, dogged by cancelled commercial flights and charter planes beset by technical faults.
Mr Cameron and William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, issued a public apology for the chaos. No 10 insisted that since the PM's return from his week-long trip to the troubled region he has personally led the Government's response. Meanwhile, the UN continues to deliberate on its response.
Britain is demanding a travel ban, arms embargo and freeze of Gaddafi's assets. Mr Cameron spoke to the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to secure agreement that the actions of the Libyan regime "were totally unacceptable and that brutality and intimidation would not be tolerated".
Mr Cameron stressed that "there can be no impunity for the blatant and inhuman disregard for basic rights that is taking place in Libya".
But Mr Erdogan broke ranks and criticised sanctions as punishment of ordinary Libyans. Concern for the country's oil reserves may be taking priority over the welfare of the population who are already struggling to find food, he suggested.Reuse content