The United Kingdom’s foreign minister has been having to deal with mounting criticism after what’s been described as an ‘embarrassing’ attempt to enter dialogue with anti-Gaddafi Libyan rebels.
William Hague has admitted to parliament that he gave the green light for a team of two British intelligence officers and six SAS special forces troops to initiate talks with the rebels last week. However, the group, described by Hague as a “small diplomatic team” was arrested by opposition supporters and led off in handcuffs. After two days in detention, they were all released on Sunday and removed from Libya.
Britain’s ambassador to Libya then had to contact the rebels to explain the mission, but the telephone call between him and rebel Mustafa Abdel Jalil was intercepted by Colonel Gaddafi’s regime. Gaddafi was subsequently able to broadcast on state television the British ambassador’s apology to the rebel leader and his plea for the release of the men. This could only serve to boost Gaddafi’s claim that the unrest in Libya is being fuelled by foreign hands.
Hague has confirmed that Prime Minister Cameron was aware of the mission and that while the timing and details were left to what he called “professionals”, he took responsibility himself. He had to tell a rowdy House of Commons on Tuesday that there had been a “serious misunderstanding” over the group’s role in eastern Libya which led to them being detained by rebels rather than speaking with their leaders. This explanation drew laughter from the benches.
The British government’s critics soon went to work on slamming the debacle, with Hague their main target.
Sir Menzies Campbell, a former leader of the Liberal Democrats, now in government themselves, said the operation had been “ill conceived, poorly planned and embarrassingly executed.”
Douglas Alexander, Hague’s shadow as foreign minister in opposition, accused the government of “serial bungling”. He asked Hague whether, if he had new neighbours in his street, he would introduce himself by ringing the doorbell or would climb over their fence in the middle of the night.
There have also, inevitably in such circumstances, been calls for Hague to resign.
The government has tried to take the setback in its stride and says it still intends to send diplomats to eastern Libya to maintain contact with rebels.