UK diplomatic team leaves Libya after issues resolved

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 18, 2011 4:31 PM
UK diplomatic team leaves Libya after issues resolved

By Tom Pfeiffer and Stefano Ambrogi

BENGHAZI, Libya/LONDON (Reuters) - A British diplomatic team, which is reported to have included special forces soldiers, left Libya Sunday after being captured by rebels in the eastern town of Benghazi.

Britain said the team left Libya after running into difficulties. It did not mention the special forces soldiers.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said the problems the team had encountered had been "satisfactorily resolved" and Britain would send another delegation to meet rebel leaders soon.

"This diplomatic effort is part of the UK's wider work on Libya, including our ongoing humanitarian support," he said.

A rebel spokesman in Benghazi confirmed that the team, including the crack troops, had left Libya.

Earlier the Sunday Times had said the eight armed but plain- clothed soldiers belonged to the Special Air Service (SAS) whose regiment has seen service in Iraq and Afghanistan and has a special place in British military folklore.

A Libyan human rights activist with links to the rebels told Reuters the team was seized because they had aroused suspicion.

"They (the rebel army) did capture some British special forces. They could not ascertain if they were friends or foes," said the source in Benghazi. We do not know why they (British government) did not get in touch first or (detail) the purpose of their mission."

The Sunday Times said the team were intercepted as they escorted a junior diplomat through rebel-held territory. He was preparing the way for a visit by a senior colleague to try to establish diplomatic contact with the rebels, it said.

Rebel sources expressed puzzlement about the mission.

"If this is an official delegation, why come with helicopters? Why not say 'we are coming, permission to land at the airport?' There are rules for these things," one said.

Britain has taken a strong stance against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and wants to work with rebels to help oust him.

British Defense Secretary Liam Fox said earlier that a diplomatic team had gone to Benghazi but he declined to comment on whether special forces had been captured.

"It is a very difficult situation. There are a number of different opposition groups to Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. They do seem relatively disparate," Fox said.

"We want to clearly understand what the dynamic is there because we want to be able to work with them to ensure the demise of the Gaddafi regime, to see a transition to greater stability in Libya and ultimately to more representative government," he said.

Fox ruled out the use of British military ground forces in Libya but said a no-fly zone remained a possibility. NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels on March 10-11 would examine no-fly zone options.

(Additional reporting Adrian Croft and Keith Weir, Writing by Edmund Blair in Cairo, Editing by Diana Abdallah)