Cameron apologises for Libya rescue delays

Joe Churcher,Pa,In Oman
Thursday 24 February 2011 15:37

David Cameron said today that he was "extremely sorry" for the delays to the Government's efforts to rescue British nationals stranded in Libya.

Amid heavy criticism of the Foreign Office's slow response to the chaos, the Prime Minister told Sky News: "What I want to say to those people is I am extremely sorry.

"It is a very difficult picture in Libya. This is not an easy situation."

Mr Cameron offered his apologies as he spoke to broadcasters in Oman on the final leg of a tour of the Middle East this week.

He has been talking to Foreign Secretary William Hague via telephone about the Government's response to the Libya crisis.

Mr Hague is this morning chairing a meeting of emergency planning committee Cobra in Whitehall.

In a separate interview with the BBC, the Prime Minister expressed concern for the hundreds of Britons who have been stuck at Tripoli Airport awaiting flights.

"Of course I'm incredibly sorry. They've had a difficult time. The conditions at the airport have been extremely poor," Mr Cameron said.

Mr Cameron told Sky News: "We have achieved a lot this morning but we need to do more and we need to do it quickly.

"There is nothing more important than getting British nationals, our own citizens, out of Libya and safely back home.

"Two flights have taken off from Tripoli, there is a third on the ground loading passengers. We are doing our last sweep of the airport to check there are no more British citizens there.

"Of course further British nationals are likely to turn up and there will be more flights coming in and we will do everything necessary to get those people home.

"There are going to be lessons to be learned from this and we will do everything to deal with the situation on the ground and to learn the lessons from the future."

The Prime Minister said Foreign Office staff had been "working round the clock" and were doing an "extremely difficult job".

He added: "But obviously we need to do more, we need to do everything possible to get those people home."

He also dismissed as a "throwaway line" a comment by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg that he "forgot" he was running the country in the absence of his boss.

Mr Cameron said: "I'm not absent, that is the way Government works. In the age of the BlackBerry, the telephone, the internet, just because I leave the country doesn't mean I am not in charge."

Mr Cameron told BBC News that "all the options" were open, including the use military assets "as they were needed".

He said: "In terms of the future, I don't want to speculate too much. We have to plan very carefully for what we can do, with the companies concerned, for all those people who are out in the desert working for various businesses out there.

"We have people working round the clock to get that done. It wouldn't be right to speculate about all the different means and methods we can do to do that. As for the future, we must look at all the options."

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said the whole episode had raised "serious questions of ministerial judgment".

The Government should have acted sooner to deploy RAF transport planes to Tripoli and not relied on charter aircraft, he claimed.

He told the BBC: "The first error in the Foreign Office was the assumption that scheduled carriers - that is bmi and British Airways - would continue to fly into Tripoli when all of us could see by Monday evening the deteriorating security situation.

"That meant the British Government didn't act as quickly as other governments to ensure there was a chartered aircraft available to get on to the ground and to get British nationals out.

"Secondly it became obvious... they were having difficulty sourcing a charter aircraft that was actually able to fly.

"I don't understand why they weren't operating through Cobra to secure the support of the RAF at an earlier stage.

"We have Hercules, we have a sovereign base in Akrotiri (Cyprus). It would have been perfectly feasible for the RAF, if they had received that request at an earlier stage from the Foreign Office, to get a British military aircraft on to the ground in Tripoli.

"So I think there are very serious questions of ministerial judgment as well as the obvious technical issues which meant the aircraft they had chartered sat on the runway at Gatwick for 10 hours."

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