What they’re saying about the SAS cock-up in Libya

libya sas

William Hague admits responsibility for the SAS embarrassment - kind of

BY Tim Edwards LAST UPDATED AT 18:26 ON Mon 7 Mar 2011

Embarrassment and buck-passing surrounds the clandestine British mission to make contact with opposition forces in Libya, which came to light at the weekend. Six SAS soldiers and a Foreign Office official were freed last night and transferred to HMS Cumberland.

They had been captured by rebels shortly after being dropped off by helicopter in eastern Libya around four days ago.

The mission appears to have been an attempt by prime minister David Cameron to get on to the front foot over the Libyan crisis, after a bad fortnight in which he has been criticised for being too slow to evacuate British nationals and appeared isolated on the international stage when he called for a no-fly zone to be enforced over the restive country to prevent Colonel Gaddafi's air force from killing rebels.

More embarrassing still has been a recording of the British ambassador to Libya, Richard Northern, explaining the SAS mission to a rebel official. The call was intercepted by the Gaddafi regime and played on state television.

In it, Northern is told that the SAS team made a "big mistake" by arriving in a helicopter on open ground. Northern explains he didn't know how the team had been deployed, before agreeing that it was no surprise that the rebels had been "alarmed".

Today, 'Whitehall sources' made it clear to the BBC that the mission had been personally authorised by William Hague in a fairly obvious attempt to distance Cameron from yet another cock-up.

The foreign secretary later gave a statement to the Commons in which he sort of accepted responsibility for authorising a mission to put a team into eastern Libya, but still managed to pass the buck further down the chain of command by saying that "of course the timing and details of [the mission] are operational matters to be decided by the professionals".

WHAT THEY ARE SAYING:
Editorial, the Guardian: "Once again Britain has misjudged the nature of what is unfolding in Libya. The mission came James Bond-style by helicopter and left more conventionally by ship."

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander: "The British public are entitled to wonder whether, if some new neighbours 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."

Oliver Miles, former UK ambassador to Libya: "The phone lines to the country still work so there's still quite a lot of information there if you're prepared to dredge for it. I'm glad that this particular episode seems to have ended in farce rather than tragedy."

Editorial, Daily Mirror: "David Cameron’s incompetent coalition has been repeatedly exposed as out of its depth, badly judging the British response to the point where it put lives at risk… A blame game is being played between Downing Street, the Ministry of Defence, politicians and the armed forces. We suspect another apology is due from Mr Cameron. The buck stops in No 10, as he asserted when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown held the post."

Sir Menzies Campbell, former Lib Dem leader: "Coupled with the apparent interception of the ambassador's conversations with the rebels – and the inference that Gaddafi will attach to them – and it is clear that British influence in Libya has been dented by these events."

Sir Emyr Jones Parry, former UK ambassador to the United Nations: "I think the mistake perhaps was to blur the distinction between what is a routine diplomatic activity, where your protection is declared to the host government or to the authorities in place, and something which is altogether more clandestine."

Mary Dejevsky, the Independent: "This was a debacle that would have been the stuff of high comedy, were the context not the rapidly accelerating civil war in Libya and the risk not to real and highly trained British lives. As it is, ’only’ the reputation of Britain, its special forces and its diplomacy are damaged - to the extent that they will be lampooned around the world - but that should be quite enough to warrant some searching questions."

Member of Benghazi’s revolutionary council to the Guardian: "They were carrying espionage equipment, reconnaissance equipment, multiple passports and weapons. This is no way to conduct yourself during an uprising. Gaddafi is bringing in thousands of mercenaries to kill us, most are using foreign passports and how do we know who these people are? They say they're British nationals and some of the passports they have are British. But the Israelis used British passports to kill that man in Dubai last year."

Boris Johnson, Conservative mayor of London: "The war has provoked such deep distrust of our motives as to make any action in Libya virtually impossible. The more we do, and the more we rattle our sabres, the more easily Gaddafi can shore up his position by portraying the rebels as the tools of a foreign power." · 

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