A special forces team held captive by Libyan rebels was released unharmed last night after a diplomatic mission to help the opposition ended in humiliation. The eight men were said to be escorting British diplomats on a secret mission to forge links with the rebel leadership when they were arrested and held for more than two days.
They were on their way home last night aboard HMS Cumberland, bound for Malta. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said: "The team went to Libya to initiate contacts with the opposition. They experienced difficulties, which have now been satisfactorily resolved. They have now left Libya."
Libyan state television broadcast what it said was a phone conversation between Britain's ambassador to Libya, Richard Northern, and a rebel spokesman for the former justice minister, Mustapha Abdel Jalil.
Mr Northern, negotiating on the team's behalf, explained it was a "misunderstanding". The rebel leader responded: "They made a big mistake, coming with a helicopter in an open area." Mr Northern responded: "I didn't know how they were coming."
The episode is a rebuff to David Cameron, who has been accused of sabre rattling in his attempts to help the rebels, and yet another setback to his Libya strategy. However, Mr Hague said the Government planned to send more missions.
The team members were believed to be from the Special Boat Service (SBS), the marine equivalent of the SAS, which flew into the country the previous weekend to rescue British citizens trapped by the conflict.
Witnesses said a party of 20 had landed by helicopter in the desert six miles from Benina airport east of Benghazi in the early hours of Friday and were met by other men on the ground. They were, some reports suggested, arrested when they arrived at a compound in Benghazi and were found to be carrying weapons, explosives and maps.
"They [the rebel army] did capture some British special forces. They could not ascertain if they were friends or foes," said a rebel source in Benghazi yesterday, adding: "We do not know why they [the British Government] did not get in touch first or [detail] the purpose of their mission."
Both sides appeared intent on resolving the matter swiftly yesterday with reports that the men were being treated well. "They are not being held blindfolded with a gun to their heads," said one Whitehall insider.
Diplomatic sources said the British team were under the impression that they had received the agreement of the provisional government in Benghazi. However, that government does not yet have a coherent structure and it is difficult to understand who would have had the power to authorise the entry of foreign troops – a highly contentious subject among the rebels.
Posters have been put up in Benghazi saying "No To Foreign Intervention – Libyans Can Do It By Themselves" despite some calls for air strikes.
The appearance of the British military was said to have angered some Libyan opposition figures, who feared any suggestion of Western military interference could be used to rally patriotic support for the entrenched Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
Government sources confirmed last week that Foreign Office officials and special advisers would be going into the east of the country near Benghazi to try to establish contacts with the opposition, assess the situation on the grounds and "support the transition" of power. Further sources suggested that MI6 operatives backed by special forces teams would also be sent in.
The Prime Minister said last week that he was considering military assistance to opposition groups before being contradicted by officials, who insisted supplying military hardware was out of the question, not least because of an arms embargo.
Mr Cameron's calls for a no-fly zone were initially described as "loose talk" by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, though they were later backed by President Barack Obama.
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