“A bunch of militamen were in control of a British army base in the UK”. A whistleblower gives his shocking account of the Libyan army training fiasco to International Editor Lindsey Hilsum.
“They did whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, and instead of being an army to train them, the British were reduced to babysitting them to limit the damage,” said a man I will call “John” who worked on the base for several months. His eyewitness testimony is backed up by others who have given similar, if less detailed, accounts.
Our source worked on the Bassingbourn military base where the Royal Scotttish Regiment were trying to turn 300 Libyan rebels into soldiers.
Workers and soldiers have been told not to talk to the media but some feel compelled to speak out.
The plan was to drill Libyans from rebel brigades that had overthrown Colonel Gaddafi so they could return to form the core of a new national army. But the vetting process appears to have been haphazard, and the country’s increasingly chaotic and fragmented nature was mirrored at Bassingbourn with men from different tribal and regional militia fighting each other.
John described an aggressive, ill-disciplined band who had no interest in becoming real soldiers, but saw their sojourn in the UK as an opportunity to drink alcohol and party. If they didn’t like the food or the training they rioted or went on strike.
“They would go round building by building breaking fire alarms,” he said. “They attacked the shop on the base. They broke into the communal areas, stole laptops, destroyed furniture and sprayed the whole place with fire extinguishers.”
He says the women on the base were terrified, because the Libyans would insult them and on one occasion threatened a woman who had reported them for taking pictures of her without permission. According to John, one of the Libyan officers told him he didn’t think there was such a thing as rape in the UK as women here have sex outside of marriage.
Last week three Libyans appeared in court and admitted two counts of sexual assault of two women in Cambridge, while on Monday two more Libyan soldiers remain in the UK facing charges, the rest of the trainees are being sent back to Libya.
They were also a danger to each other.
“I saw one guy stab another in the neck but luckily it was with a butter knife so it didn’t penetrate,” said John. “When they were drunk a few guys pinned another down and attempted to rape him…I know that they were arrested, and I think they were deported. The victim’s cousin was also sent back because he retaliated and stabbed one of the perpetrators.”
At first the British soldiers tried to keep the Libyans on the base but John claims that when they repeatedly escaped, they seemed to give up.
“The British army actually set up mini-buses to pick them up take them to the local Tescos. They bought as much booze as they wanted and they came back on base,” said John. “Every Thursday night we’d call it riot night. They would get really drunk, riot and there were a few incidents of stabbings and fights.”
The Ministry of Defence told Channel 4 News: “Whilst the majority of recruits have responded positively to the training, we regret that there have been some serious disciplinary issues and this, as the Prime Minister has said, has been completely unacceptable.
“Appropriate measures have been taken, including the involvement of the police. Training was initially expected to last until the end of November but we have agreed with the Libyan Government that it is best for all involved to bring forward the training completion date.
“The majority of recruits have already left the UK and are now back in Libya with the remainder set to return in the coming days.”
Despite the deteriorating security the British troops, John says were expected to “soldier on” and keep trying. According to John, the Libyans were allowed on the firing range with live ammunition, which he said made him feel unsafe.
In Bassingbourn, people are relieved that the Libyans have left.
“I think the Ministry of Defence have handled the whole thing appallingly,” said Peter Robinson, head of the Bassingbourn Parish Council. “They’ve lied right from the start. They always they always knew, presumably, they would let these trainees out out of own, but we were told from beginning that they would never be let out unaccompanied.
“They closed all facilites on site to local people on grounds of security and their own security was as leaky as ten sieves.”
Local MP Andrew Lansley told Channel 4 News that discipline had evidently broken down, but “we were never told” and that by the time protection and resources were stepped up at the base, it was “too late”.
Labour MP Madeleine Moon, a member of the Defence Select Committee, said she feared the whole issue stemmed from three government departments, namely the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office, all involved but with none in charge.
“We need to know who was making what decisions… The whole programme seems to have been a disaster from beginning to end” she said.
The last of the Libyans are due to fly back home tonight, but such is the chaos back home, it’s not clear that their plane will be able to land.
Today Libya’s Supreme Court today ruled that the government, which has fled the capital for the eastern city of Tobruk, is not legitimate. Libya is a country with neither army nor government, and British efforts to help restore stability look like wishful thinking at best.