HMS Cumberland has left the Libyan port of Benghazi to evacuate 68 Britons from the revolution-hit country.
The Type 22 frigate has arrived to get British citizens aboard to ferry them to safety, and is now headed to Malta.
Earlier on Thursday, as the crew of Cumberland prepared to pick up stranded British nationals from Libya, the mood on board was upbeat and confident.
‘It’s been so far, so good,’ Lieutenant Commander James Farrant said of the operation to evacuate scores of expatriates from the strife-torn city of Benghazi.
Having received the call-up just hours earlier, the Royal Navy warship was now docked and waiting for the British citizens to arrive before setting sail again.
Its next destination will be Malta, from where the ship’s additional passengers will be transported back to the UK.
HMS Cumberland was due to be heading back to Britain to be decommissioned when it was diverted to the Libyan coast.
‘We had literally just popped out the north end of the Suez Canal when we got the call. We had been in the Arabian Gulf on security patrols,” Lt Cdr Farrant explained from the vessel.
Despite being delayed from a reunion with loved ones in the UK, the crew were said to be more than happy to help in the rescue operation.
‘People are very happy to be involved in the operation to help people and save lives. There has been no negativity at all in the company,’ Lt Cdr Farrant said.
But he joked that he may be jinxed when it comes to putting off a trip back home to help stranded British nations.
‘It may be my fault, it is the second time it has happened to me. I was on HMS Bulwark when we were diverted to evacuate people from Beirut in 2006.’
Having pulled alongside the Libyan coastline, the ship’s head of evacuations said they were now waiting for the warden ashore to arrive with the evacuees.
‘We are not sure how many people are going to turn up, but we will take as many as we can,” he said, estimating that at least 100 additional guests will be on board HMS Cumberland.
And despite the violence witnessed in the city in recent days, Lt Cdr Farrant said it appeared relatively calm from his viewpoint.
He said: ‘I popped my head out very briefly but there was not much evidence of enormous disquiet. I was told you could see smoke from some of the buildings though.’
Nonetheless, he added that the Navy warship would be taking it easy with its news guests in view of what they had been through.
‘We won’t be going full speed. We want to keep them as comfortable as possible. People have gone through a lot already, we don’t want to put them through anything uncomfortable,’ Lt Cdr Farrant said.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: ‘As we understand it, the area where the port is, is no longer under Colonel Gaddafi’s control. We hope to get several hundred people on to Cumberland quickly.’
‘We are encouraging British nationals to go to the port. Capacity is several hundred.
‘HMS Cumberland will transport passengers to Valetta, Malta. We are unable to confirm precise time of departure. There will be no charge for this assisted departure.’
The Foreign Office confirmed 26 British nationals were departing on a Turkish ferry leaving Benghazi at noon local time.
‘We are looking into contingency plans around using more ferries if needed,’ a spokesman said, adding: ‘British Nationals at the port already may wish to make contact with Turkish Embassy officials to use this route.’
Two Foreign Office Rapid Deployment Teams are in Libya - one on HMS Cumberland helping Brits to get on board, and a team providing 24 hour support at Tripoli airport, where flights have been arranged to fly British people out of the country.
‘We will send more if needed. We are also sending additional staff to Malta to reinforce our teams there,’ the Foreign Office said.
HMS York could also be deployed to Libya if the need arises.
The Portsmouth-based Type 42 destroyer is currently docked at Gibraltar, on schedule to continue her journey to the Falkland Islands.
But a spokeswoman for Portsmouth Naval Base said: ‘She is still on track to proceed to the Falklands as per her schedule, but the situation is changing every day so she could be re-tasked to Libya.’