So, was that British SAS team captured and released by Libyan rebels over the weekend really on a diplomatic mission, as the U.K. government claimed?
The Guardian newspaper just published this report saying the team was escorting MI6 officers. What they were going to do, isn't quite clear. Whatever their mission, the sudden appearance of armed foreigners in rebel held territory quite logically, freaked the rebels out:
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 fueled 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 last thing the rebels want is to have their legitimacy threatened by any event that aids Gadhafi's claims that the rebellion is fueled by western operatives.
Apparently, the troops landed via helicopter at a farm where a secret MI6 operator named "Tom" worked as an administrator. It seems "Tom" didn't tell the farm's security about his friends from back home that would be staying with them:
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."
Hey, at least the SAS team got a good breakfast the next day:
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.
This last paragraph is key. It's just one more sign that western forces are indeed working to help the rebels. Maybe not with air strikes and direct weapons shipments, yet. Still, they're in-country and will continue to enter the country:
"We intend, in consultation with the opposition, to send a further team to strengthen our dialogue in due course," the [U.K.] foreign secretary added. "This diplomatic effort is part of the UK's wider work on Libya, including our ongoing humanitarian support.