SAS and MI6 officers released by Libya’s rebel commanders


The group’s capture is a major embarrassment to the British government and could potentially undermine the rebels’ claims that the revolution has had solely domestic roots
The SAS and British intelligence agents have now left Benghazi, where rebels are mobilised. ‘We don’t want new enemies, but this is no way to make contact’, the opposition has said.

Martin Chulov in Benghazi
Libyan rebels seen training in Benghazi
Photograph: Hussein Malla/AP

Libya’s rebel commanders have freed two MI6 officers and six SAS soldiers captured by farm guards on Thursday morning, after the British government vouched for their identities. The group was immediately flown to the frigate HMS Cumberland, which remains stationed off the coast of Libya.
Seven of the group had been inserted by helicopter into farmland near the rebel capital Benghazi on a mission to establish contact with anti-regime forces. The eight Britons had been detained and questioned since Thursday by rebel leaders who had suspected they were mercenaries.
Challenged by guards at a wheat farm, they were forced to open bags containing weapons, reconnaissance equipment, and multiple passports, then herded into a dormitory before they were handed over to the rebels.
William Hague confirmed the “diplomatic team” had left Libya after experiencing “difficulties”. He said another team would be sent in after consultation with the opposition leadership.
The group’s capture is a major embarrassment to the British government and could potentially undermine the rebels’ claims that the revolution, which has rippled through Libya for the past fortnight, has had solely domestic roots. Officials in Benghazi’s organising committee, which is trying to organise civilian and military affairs, criticised the British team’s decision to make a clandestine entry to the country, claiming it had fuelled doubts about their intentions.
“We don’t want new enemies, but this is no way to make contact,” said a senior member of the committee, Essam Gheriani.
“Dropping in in the dead of night with espionage equipment, recording devices, multiple weapons and passports. In Dubai the Israelis used British passports to kill that man, [Hamas commander Mahmoud] al-Mabhouh. It’s a matter of verification. At a time of revolution, suspicion is greater than trust.”
A recording of a telephone conversation between the UK’s ambassador to Libya, Richard Northern, and a senior rebel leader has been leaked by Libyan authorities. Northern suggested the SAS team had been detained due to a “misunderstanding”.
The rebel leader responded: “They made a big mistake, coming with a helicopter in an open area. I didn’t know how they were coming.”
The Guardian can reveal that the helicopter group’s contact was a British national named Tom, who is believed to be an MI6 officer. He had worked for the past five months as an administrator in the Al-Khadra Farm Company, 18 miles south-west of Benghazi. The group’s cover was blown by suspicious guards as soon as they arrived at their staging point inside the farm courtyard, which was adjacent to Tom’s living quarters.
“This could play into Gaddafi’s hands,” said Ahmed al-Bira, the director of the Al-Khadra Farm Company. “From the beginning this has been from the people here. It is not about foreigners.”
The British government had last week indicated it was prepared to send advisers to link up with the rebels in an attempt to intensify pressure on Colonel Gaddafi, who has fought to remain in power after being routed from the east of the country during a violent three-day revolt.
“I can confirm that a small British diplomatic team has been in Benghazi,” Hague said in a statement. “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.
“We intend, in consultation with the opposition, to send a further team to strengthen our dialogue in due course,” the foreign secretary added. “This diplomatic effort is part of the UK’s wider work on Libya, including our ongoing humanitarian support.
Gaddafi has blamed the uprising on al-Qaida and foreign powers who he says are after Libya’s oil. Rebel attempts to move towards western Libya and the capital, Tripoli, have so far been stymied by forces loyal to the dictator, who were battling rebel units west of the oil town of Ras Lanuf, about 250 miles from Benghazi.
Gaddafi’s air force jets have been the scourge of the rebels and a key reason for their willingness to seek foreign help. On Sunday, jets intensified their attacks bombing rebel positions in the centre of the country and causing dozens of casualties.
One of the guards who arrested the Britons described their clandestine arrival and the mysterious Briton who had worked at the farm. “His name was Tom and he worked in administration,” said the guard, named Rafah. “At 3am on Thursday he said he was going to Benghazi and drove out the gate.”
A second foreign national drove another car. The guards heard helicopters landing in a nearby field and soon after, both cars returned to the farm, driving through a gate and into a large gravel staging yard, near Tom’s living quarters.
“They were taking large bags into the house and we walked over to them,” said Rafah. “We fired one shot into the air and told them they were under arrest.”
Rafah and several other guards said they cooked the Britons eggs for breakfast and gave them bread and coffee. Soon after, the director Mr al-Bira arrived and phoned the rebel leadership asking what to do with the men. He was told to bring them to Benghazi.Rebel leaders said they were anxious to put the rocky start to the liaison behind them and secure supply lines for their forces, which they claim are ill-equipped to fight Gaddafi loyalists in any protracted campaign.

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