7 Mar 2011

Foiled SBS mission will upset UK's 'good reputation' in Libya

Lindsey Hilsum on why the failed mission in Libya could seriously tarnish Britain’s excellent reputation with the Libyan protesters.

I hadn’t realised until I came to Libya how strong the connections with the UK are. On the plane on the way out we met four Libyan doctors working in the NHS who were coming to provide medical assistance, as volunteers. One of them told me that nearly all his cohorts at medical school in Tripoli in the 1990s had ended up working in the UK. Everywhere I go I meet people speaking very good english who have lived in Manchester, Leicester, or Luton.

Which is why it’s such a shame that the British Government made such a mess of its attempts to establish links with the rebels in Benghazi. It’s not hard to get here – journalists are coming by road over land from Egypt every day. HMS Cumberland have docked at Benghazi port to evacuate stranded foreigners three times. I was amazed then when a source close to the council now running eastern Libya told me yesterday morning about the British diplomats and special forces who had landed by helicopter in the dessert in the middle of the night. We understand it was an SBS mission and their helicopter had come from the HMS York, which was in the area.

Read more from Channel 4 News: SAS veteran criticises ‘amateurish’ Libya failure

Almost as amazed as the villagers we met in the remote outpost of Jardiniah, as the masked men crowded around us to tell us about the mysterious landing. We were directed to an agricultural project and there we learnt that the british manager had gone at 2am into the dessert. He returned with the men who had landed by helicopter. No wonder suspicions were raised. A man who we met who had been a guard on the gate told us how they had searched the foreigners. He said they found guns and bombs in their luggage. Other sources said they also had maps and passports from a variety of countries.

My understanding is that these were diplomats were with a close protection team, but as somebody close to the council running Benghazi said to me “why did they come through the window when they could have come through the door?”

They were lucky that although Libyans are very sensitive about foreign intervention the council gave them the benefit of the doubt and after holding them for a couple of days released them to HMS Cumberland. The British Government finds itself in a complicated situation here. Many Libyans in this part of the country are unhappyabout former PM Tony Blair’s links with Colonel Gaddafi. But they like David Cameron’s statements on their uprising and feel that the British are with them as they try to overthrow a dictator.

Britain has such a good reputation here, it is really a shame that the Government has jeopardised this with this ill-advised boys own adventure.

Follow @lindseyhilsum on Twitter.