The British government was on Sunday facing embarrassment after a secret mission sent to liaise with rebel groups in Libya ended in humiliation with at least eight men, including reportedly six members of the elite Special Air Service (SAS), being captured by the very people they had gone to help.
Libyan opposition figures were reported to be angry over British intervention as they feared that it could be used by the Qadhafi regime as evidence of western interference. Last week, a proposal by Prime Minister David Cameron for military intervention in Libya was shot down by other countries precisely on the same grounds.
According to media reports, the men were intercepted as they reportedly escorted a junior British diplomat through rebel-held areas of Benghazi. The diplomat, it was claimed, was on a mission to assess the needs of groups fighting the Libyan forces and offer them help.
Defence Secretary Liam Fox confirmed that a diplomatic team was in Libya and in touch with rebel groups but declined to comment on the arrests.
“There is a small diplomatic team in the eastern city of Benghazi. We are in touch with them but it would be inappropriate for me to comment further on that for reasons I am sure you will understand,” he told the BBC.
Earlier, The Sunday Times said that angry Libyan opposition figures “ordered the soldiers to be locked up on a military base”. The Libyans “reacted furiously saying nobody had invited the British”, it said.
The BBC quoted eyewitnesses as saying they saw six men in black overalls land in a helicopter near the city of Benghazi early on Friday and they were met by two others.
“Witnesses said that when the men's bags were checked they were found to contain arms, ammunition, explosives, maps and passports from at least four different nationalities.
The witnesses said at that point all eight men were arrested and taken to an army base in Benghazi where they are being held by the opposition forces who control this area,” it said.
The article was corrected for a factual error.