Navy steps in to rescue Britons from political crisis in Libya

Commander Steve Dainton.
Commander Steve Dainton.
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A PORTSMOUTH captain has told how Britons fleeing crisis-hit Libya described ‘harrowing tales of violence’ after being rescued.

HMS Cumberland sailed out from Libya’s second city of Benghazi in rough seas yesterday – evacuating 68 British nationals as dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi clung on to power.

Around 1,000 people have been killed in the country since anti-government protesters took to the streets in the wake of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.

Cumberland’s commanding officer, Captain Steve Dainton, is the man in charge of co-ordinating Britain’s naval response to the crisis.

Capt Dainton – who lives in Waterlooville with his wife Caroline and two sons – must now sail his Type 22 frigate safely to Malta, before the Brits can come home.

He said last night: ‘There were some fairly harrowing tales of violence during the last couple of days and certainly there is great deal of relief to see the safety of a Royal Navy warship arriving in Benghazi.

‘The atmosphere is very good on board at the moment. There is obviously a number of relieved people that we’ve embarked when we arrived in Benghazi.’

Some 200 people were on board the ship in total, and departure was delayed for several hours due to stormy conditions in the area.

Capt Dainton added: ‘We’ve just managed to get everybody fed and watered for the night and hopefully bedded down for a bit of rest. The weather is quite rough, a lot of people are not feeling too good.’

The Foreign Office urged British people stuck in Libya to get to the port to make their escape. Hundreds fled the country on flights and ferries.

Passengers were greeted by staff from the Foreign Office and the UK Border Agency as they embarked.

‘It’s been so far, so good,’ Lieutenant Commander James Farrant said.

The ship, which has been axed in defence cuts, had been on her way home to be decommissioned when the order came to go to Libya.

Lt Cdr Farrant said: ‘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.’

But despite the possibility of being delayed from a reunion with loved ones back home, Lt Cdr Farrant said the crew were more than happy to help the rescue operation.

‘People are very happy to be involved in the operation to help people and save lives.’

And despite the violence witnessed in the city in recent days, he said it appeared relatively calm from the port. ‘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.’

Around 3,500 Britons had been living in Libya before the crisis but most are thought to have left in recent days.

Britain’s response to the crisis has been criticised as being slow.

While French and Turkish nationals were evacuated by their governments early Wednesday, the first UK government chartered plane did not leave until yesterday.

Prime Minister David Cameron said he was ‘extremely sorry’ for the government’s handling of the evacuation.

Andy Smith, director of the UK National Defence Association, which is based in Portsmouth, said it was ironic that Cumberland was sent to Libya so soon before she leaves service.

He said: ‘Already, less than six months after the so-called Strategic Defence and Security Review, it looks like the chickens are coming home to roost.’