Amid mounting criticism of his handling of the Libyan crisis, William Hague yesterday had to accept the blame for a bungled SAS mission that the opposition called an "embarrassment" that could have led to tragedy.
Nonetheless, attempting to downplay his own role in the process, the Foreign Secretary stressed that the military was responsible for the details of the operation.
And he added that David Cameron was informed before two diplomats, guarded by six special forces troops, were sent to the east of the country.
Mr Hague was forced to make a Commons statement following the fiasco, which led to the detention of the Britons by rebel leaders and the confiscation of their weapons and helicopters. Earlier Downing Street had confirmed the Foreign Secretary had approved the dispatch of the "diplomatic team" to Libya.
MPs of all parties mocked the decision to send the Foreign Office advisers – who were charged with forging links with opposition leaders – to a location outside Benghazi at night.
Although Mr Hague told the Commons he accepted "full ministerial responsibility" for the botched operation, he also sought to pass some blame to the Government's military advisers.
"When we send staff into a potentially dangerous situation, then a level of protection is provided for them based on professional and military advice," he told the Commons. "The timing and details of that are operational matters decided by the professionals, but ministers must have confidence in their judgements, as I do, and must take full ministerial responsibility for their judgements and decisions, as I do." Mr Hague added: "The Prime Minister and other colleagues were aware we would attempt to put a diplomatic team into eastern Libya."
The Foreign Secretary also insisted there had been a communications breakdown with opposition leaders, who had "welcomed the idea of a British diplomatic mission" ahead of the team's detention following a "serious misunderstanding". Mr Hague added: "We intend to send further diplomats to eastern Libya in due course."
But Douglas Alexander, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "The British public are entitled to wonder whether, if some new neighbours moved into the Foreign Secretary's street, he would introduce himself by ringing the doorbell or instead choose to climb over the fence in the middle of the night."
He added that the mission was the latest in a catalogue of setbacks for the Foreign Office, including the failure to send flights to Libya to evacuate Britons at any earlier stage. Mr Alexander said: "Twice in as many weeks, ministerial decisions have generated an embarrassment that could all too easily have become a tragedy."
The former Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, said: "This mission was ill-conceived, poorly-planned and embarrassingly-executed. What are you going to do to restore the reputation of the United Kingdom in relation to foreign policy in the Middle East? What will be the role of any further mission and what permissions will it seek before it goes?"
Mr Hague replied that "further contacts with the opposition in eastern Libya were necessary and desirable", but they would go ahead on a "different basis" from last week.
In Benghazi, the opposition last night signalled its dismay over any "cloak and dagger" approach to diplomacy by foreign powers. Iman Bugaighis, an opposition official, said: "The [National] Council welcomes any delegation from any country, but this has to be done with respect for Libyan territory and be done in a legal way."
Jalal el-Gallal, a member of the media committee, said of the British team: "Nobody knew anything about them. They just pitched up. Friend or foe, it's not proper."
More British universities are linked to Libya
* Two more British universities are facing questions about links to the Gaddafi regime. The School of Oriental and African Studies last year signed a £188,000 contract with a Tripoli university to teach a finance course after one of the dictator's sons, Mutassim, was tutored there in 2005. That same year a delegation from King's College London declared an improvement in Libyan prison conditions after visiting 16 jails in the country. This was despite the tour not being granted access to Abu Salim or Ain Zara, where political prisoners are detained for years without trial, according to The Guardian.
The blame game
11.25am, Prime Minister's official spokesman: "The normal way is that the Foreign Secretary takes these decisions."
3.41pm, Douglas Alexander, Shadow foreign Secretary: "The British public is entitled to wonder whether, if some new neighbours moved into the Foreign Secretary's street, he would introduce himself by ringing the doorbell or instead choose to climb over the fence in the middle of the night."
3.44pm, William Hague, Foreign Secretary: "The timing and details of that are operational matters decided by the professionals, but ministers must have confidence in their judgements, as I do, and must take full ministerial responsibility for their judgements and decisions, as I do. The Prime Minister and other colleagues were aware that we would attempt to put a diplomatic team into eastern Libya."
3.51pm, Sir Menzies Campbell, former Liberal Democrat: "This mission was ill-conceived, poorly planned and embarrassingly executed."
4.10pm: Prime Minister's official spokesman: "The Foreign Secretary has just explained the position on the position. I have nothing further to add."
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