In Libya, Captured British Soldiers Released
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
As we just heard, some anti-government fighters in Libya are torn. They want international help, but not troops. This weekend, rebels actually detained six members of the elite British special force known as the SAS. The men were held for two days before being released and have since left Libya.
As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, the British agents also left in their wake plenty of unanswered questions.
PHILIP REEVES: The British tend to be proud of the SAS, or Special Air Service. It's a special forces regiment with a special mystique and a special motto: Who dares wins. So if the SAS is humiliated, if its soldiers dare and lose, the British want to know why. That's what's happening now. Here's what we know. Six British SAS soldiers landed by helicopter in rebel-held eastern Libya Friday near the city of Benghazi. It was nighttime. Two other British officials were apparently also there.
The group ran into some armed Libyan security guards who detained them. The negotiations for their release dragged on over much of the weekend. At one stage, the British ambassador to Libya, Richard Northern, called an unnamed Libyan rebel representative to request the team be freed.
Ambassador RICHARD NORTHERN (British Ambassador to Libya): We sent a small group just to find if there was a hotel, if everything was working and there was somewhere they could stay and work when we get our group organized.
REEVES: A recording of that conversation wound up on Libyan state-run TV still under Colonel Moammar Gadhafi's control. The incident alarmed Libyan opposition leaders. They're very wary of foreign intervention on the ground, fearing it plays into Gadhafi's hands. It seems they weren't sure what to make of the British team.
Reliable reports say the SAS had passports from a number of countries, plus explosives and guns. That's hardly what you'd expect from people hunting for a hotel.
Mustafa Gheriani of Libya's opposition interim transitional council told the BBC the fact that the British arrived secretly by helicopter also aroused suspicions.
Mr. MUSTAFA GHERIANI: If they wanted to do something confidential or keep it classified, all they could have done is just send a message and we have welcomed them through the seaport or being at airport.
REEVES: The SAS could have sailed in on a British warship, as others have done, or traveled in by land like many foreign journalists. Today, in Britain's parliament, the foreign secretary, William Hague, was peppered with questions. He confirmed the prime minister, David Cameron, knew in advance of the SAS operation. But Hague accepted personal responsibility for sending what he called a small diplomatic team to Libya. He said the mission was to make initial contacts with the rebel leadership. And added...
Mr. WILLIAM HAGUE (Foreign Secretary, United Kingdom): They were withdrawn yesterday after a serious misunderstanding about their role, leading to their temporary detention.
REEVES: Hague said he'd be sending more diplomatic missions to eastern Libya soon. His answers didn't satisfy Ming Campbell of the Liberal Party, a partner in Britain's ruling coalition.
Mr. MING CAMPBELL (Liberal Party, United Kingdom): Isn't it clear that this mission was ill-conceived, poorly planned and embarrassingly executed?
REEVES: Douglas Alexander, who holds the foreign portfolio for the opposition Labour Party, made fun of Hague.
Mr. DOUGLAS ALEXANDER (Member of Parliament, Labour Party): The British public are entitled to wonder whether if some new neighbors 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.
(Soundbite of laughter)
REEVES: For all the laughter, this episode's a serious embarrassment for Britain's government. It was already under attack for generally mishandling the Libyan crisis, nor is this over. More questions will surely be asked about the SAS and its strange, bungled mission to Libya.
Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.
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