Navy warship docks after Libya mission

HMS Cumberland
HMS Cumberland
Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson. Pictute: LPhot Ioan Roberts

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HMS Cumberland has arrived in Malta after rescuing eight people from a botched SAS mission in Libya.

The frigate went in to the eastern port of Benghazi yesterday to pick up troops who were captured and then released by rebels at the weekend.

The eight-strong team - thought to have included an MI6 officer - had been sent to the country in a bid to foster links with opponents of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

But the plans went awry when their helicopter sparked an alert by landing near Benghazi without informing rebel commanders.

The group was reportedly detained after a search of their bags revealed ammunition, explosives, maps and fake passports.

A telephone call from the UK ambassador to Libya Richard Northern to a rebel leader trying to clear up the ‘misunderstanding’ was then seemingly intercepted and broadcast on Libyan state television.

The team was finally freed and left Libya last night on board HMS Cumberland.

Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, spokesman for the rebels’ provisional transitional national council, said: ‘The reason they were arrested is because they came into the country unofficially without previous arrangement with Libyan officials. Libya is an independent nation, and we have our borders that we expect to be respected.’

He added that there was ‘no crisis’ between the council and Britain and that anti-Gaddafi forces were ‘more than willing’ to talk to any delegation sent ‘in a legitimate way’.

There is speculation that the incident could hand Colonel Gaddafi a propaganda victory by adding weight to his claims of colonial influences in the unrest.

In a statement, Foreign Secretary William Hague said: ‘I can confirm that a small British diplomatic team has been in Benghazi.

‘The team went to Libya to initiate contacts with the opposition. They experienced difficulties, which have now been satisfactorily resolved. They have now left Libya.

‘We intend, in consultation with the opposition, to send a further team to strengthen our dialogue in due course. This diplomatic effort is part of the UK’s wider work on Libya, including our ongoing humanitarian support.

‘We continue to press for Gaddafi to step down and we will work with the international community to support the legitimate ambitions of the Libyan people.’

Cumberland, which has now made three trips to Benghazi and rescued in excess of 400 people, will remain in the Mediterranean as the battle for control of Libya rages.

She is joined in patrolling the area by Portsmouth frigate HMS Westminster and the naval support ship RFA Argus.

HMS York, which made one trip in to Benghazi to deliver tons of medical supplies and evacuate 43 people, has been ordered to stand down and is now heading on to her planned deployment in the South Atlantic.