FOREIGN Secretary William Hague last night defended the decision to launch the botched SAS mission to establish contact with Libyan rebels, amid furious accusations of “serial bungling” by ministers.
In a Commons statement, Mr Hague said that he personally authorised and took “full ministerial responsibility” for the decision to insert what he described as a “diplomatic team” into eastern Libya.
He said that the detention by the rebels of the eight-strong group – thought to include at least one MI6 officer – had been the result of a “serious misunderstanding”.
However, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander launched a withering attack on his handling of the situation, saying that it raised “serious questions about ministers’ grip and response” to events in Libya.
Sir Menzies Campbell, the former leader of the Conservatives’ Liberal Democrat allies, said the mission had been “ill-conceived, poorly planned and embarrassingly executed”.
Mr Hague also came under pressure from a series of senior Tory MPs who expressed deep misgivings over David Cameron’s call for preparations to be made for an international no-fly zone over Libya.
After Downing Street had earlier made clear that responsibility for launching the SAS mission lay with Mr Hague, the Foreign Secretary said the aim had been to establish contact with the Libyan opposition’s interim national council which had been established in Benghazi.
“This engagement is vitally important to gain a better understanding of the political, military and humanitarian situation on the ground,” he said.
However, he faced repeated questions as to why the team had been landed by helicopter at night in the desert carrying explosives, small arms and multiple identity papers rather than entering through Benghazi airport or the seaport, as Royal Marines on board HMS Cumberland had done.
Mr Hague said that he had been acting on “professional and military advice”, and that the team had managed to make contact with the president of the national council after they were eventually released on Sunday.
Officials said that prior to the mission there had been high-level contacts with the national council which had welcomed the decision to send a diplomatic team.
However, the message that they were coming appeared not to have got through to the rebels on the ground at Soluch, several miles from Benghazi, who detained them when they landed there in the early hours of Friday.
While the team has now left Libya on board HMS Cumberland, Mr Hague said that further diplomats would be sent to eastern Libya “in due course”.