Caroline Gammell and Nick Meo / The Telegraph – 2011-03-07 18:40:23
BENGHAZI (March 6, 2011) — When the helicopter touched down outside Benghazi in the early hours of Friday morning, the SAS troops on board knew they were entering a volatile situation. Tasked with escorting a diplomat to meet rebel Libyan forces and assessing the humanitarian situation on the ground, they did not, however, expect a hostile reception.
With the British Government openly rejecting Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and already in dialogue with opposition leaders, it should have been an uncontroversial visit. However, the manner of their arrival — in the dead of night, armed with weapons, maps and explosives while dressed in plain black clothing — did little to assuage local panic.
The contingent of seven SAS officers and one MI6 official landed about 20 miles from Benghazi, where local witnesses said warning shots were fired as they arrived. As the soldiers tried to get to a nearby compound, they were quickly surrounded by the local militia who demanded to know who they were and what they were doing.
They tried to bluff their way out of the increasingly tense situation, claiming they were unarmed, which was only made worse when their weapons were discovered. Realizing their cover had been blown and their supposedly discreet mission had been compromised, the soldiers put up no resistance as they were arrested.
Handcuffed and taken to a military base in Benghazi, they were well treated and allowed contact with British diplomats in the troubled country.
As the humiliating news of their arrest started to spread, the paths of diplomatic communication sprang into life. Richard Northern, the British ambassador to Libya, was purportedly recorded having a conversation with one of the rebel leaders to try and solve the situation. The tape, played on Libyan state television, showed him pleading for the group, claiming there had been a “misunderstanding” and asking for the opposition to intervene.
Mr Northern said the group was a small advance party of officials hoping to contact anti-Gaddafi forces and assess the humanitarian situation.
He even claimed that the group were planning to look for suitable hotels during the visit.
“I understand there has been a misunderstanding and they have been picked up by security groups who are concerned about their presence and who they are,” he said. “I hope to ask Mr Jalil (Mustafa Abdel Jalil, Col Gaddafi’s former justice minister and now senior rebel leader) if he might be able to intervene and clear up this misunderstanding.”
Mr Jalil’s spokesman told the ambassador the British had made a major error in the manner of their arrival. “They made a big mistake coming with a helicopter in an open area,” he said.
His view was echoed by other rebels in Benghazi, who were puzzled by the way in which the British forces arrived.
Jalil Elgallal, a member of Benghazi’s revolutionary media committee, said: “Nobody here was informed of their arrival; it has all been rather peculiar and we don’t understand why they turned up like this.”
Another rebel source said: “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.”
By Sunday afternoon, a crisis had been averted as the soldiers were released and their weapons confiscated. As they were rescued by HMS Cumberland, which docked briefly in Benghazi before setting sail to Malta, the Ministry of Defence was left trying to work out what on earth went wrong.
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