Al-Jazeera Footage Captures 'Western Troops on the Ground' in Libya

Report claims soldiers may be British, possibly SAS – which would break UN resolution over any 'occupation force'

By Julian Borger and Martin Chulov

May 30, 2011 "
The Guardian" -- Armed western men have been filmed on the ground with rebels in central Libya in the first apparent confirmation that Nato has sent military advisers to train anti-government forces.

 

 



A group of six westerners were clearly visible, according to a report by al-Jazeera from Dafniya, described as the westernmost point of the rebel lines west of the town of Misrata. Five of them were armed and wearing informal sand-coloured clothes, peaked caps, and cotton Arab scarves.

The sixth, apparently most senior of the group, was carrying no visible weapon and wore a pink, short-sleeve shirt. He may be an intelligence officer. The group is seen talking to rebels and then quickly leaving on being spotted by the television crew.

The footage emerged as South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma, arrived in Tripoli in an attempt to broker a ceasefire. He described reports that he would ask Gaddafi to step down as "misleading", and said he would instead focus on humanitarian measures and ways to implement a plan concocted by the African Union, which would see Libya undertake a process of transition to democratic rule but not seek Muammar Gaddafi's exile.

The western men seen by Al Jazeera were present on rebel lines late last week, days before British and French attack helicopters are to join the Nato campaign. They are expected to be active over Libya this week and likely to be deployed on the outskirts of Misrata, from where forces loyal to Gaddafi continue to shell rebel positions to the east.

There have been numerous reports in the British press that SAS soldiers are acting as spotters in Libya to help Nato warplanes target pro-Gaddafi forces.

In March, six special forces soldiers and two MI6 officers were detained by rebel fighters when they landed on an abortive mission to meet rebel leaders in Benghazi, in an embarrassing episode for the SAS.

The group was withdrawn soon afterwards and a new "liaison team" sent in its place. Asked for comment yesterday, a Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said: "We don't have any forces out there."

The subject is sensitive as the UN security council resolution in March authorising the use of force in Libya specifically excludes "a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory".

Despite more than two months of bombing by Nato jets, rebels have remained unable to advance west of Misrata, or west of Brega, 300 miles to the east. The capital, Tripoli, also remains in the grip of Gaddafi, who has defied all attempts to force him to leave.

The Benghazi-based Transitional National Council, which is positioning itself as a democratic alternative to the four decade strongman rule of the four-decade rule of Gaddafi, claimed that eight senior military officers, among them four generals, had defected to its side and would announce their new loyalties at a meeting soon to take place in Rome.

There was no immediate confirmation from the Italian government. However, air force pilots have landed in Italy and defected earlier in the rebellion. Undertrained and under-manned rebel forces have been encouraging defections, which they see as a way to whittle down support for Gaddafi in the absence of a ground army sent to assist them

In April, William Hague announced that an expanded military liaison team would be dispatched to work with the Transitional National Council.

The foreign secretary said the team would help the rebels improve "organisational structures, communications and logistics" but stressed: "Our officers will not be involved in training or arming the opposition's fighting forces, nor will they be involved in the planning or execution of the NTC's military operations or in the provision of any other form of operational military advice."

There were unconfirmed reports at the time that Britain was planning to send former SAS members and other experienced soldiers to Libya under the cover of private security companies, paid for by Arab states, to train the anti-government forces.