Westerners have been filmed on the ground with rebels in central Libya in the first apparent confirmation that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (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 western-most point of the rebel lines, west of the town of Misrata. Five of them were armed and wearing sand-coloured clothes, peaked caps and cotton Arab scarves.
The sixth, apparently the most senior of the group, was carrying no visible weapon and wore a pink, short-sleeved shirt. He may be an intelligence officer. The group was seen talking to rebels and then leaving quickly, after being spotted by the television crew.
The footage emerged as President Jacob Zuma arrived in Tripoli, in an attempt to broker a cease-fire. He described reports that he would ask Muammar 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 for Libya to make a transition to democratic rule, but not seek Gaddafi’s exile.
The Westerners were seen by Al Jazeera on rebel lines late last week, days before British and French attack helicopters were due to join the Nato campaign. They are likely to be deployed on the outskirts of Misrata, from where pro-Gaddafi forces continue to shell rebel positions.
There have been numerous reports in the British press that Special Air Services (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 in 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The group was withdrawn soon afterwards and a new “liaison team” sent in its place.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 defence ministry spokeswoman said: “We don’t have any forces out there.”
The subject is sensitive, as the United Nations 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”.
In spite of more than two months of bombing by Nato, the rebels have remained unable to advance west of Misrata, or west of Brega, 480km to the east. The capital, Tripoli, also remains in Gaddafi’s grip.
However, a fresh blow to his position came earlier this week as eight Libyan army officers appeared in Rome, saying they were part of a group of as many as 120 military officials and soldiers who had defected from Gaddafi’s side in recent days. The eight officers: five generals, two colonels and a major, spoke at a news conference organised by the Italian government. They said they had defected in protest against Gaddafi’s actions against his own people, citing killings of civilians and violence against women. They claimed that Gaddafi’s campaign against the rebels was weakening rapidly.
Airforce pilots landed in Italy and defected earlier in the rebellion. Undertrained and undermanned rebel forces have been encouraging defections as a way to whittle away support for Gaddafi.
In April British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that an expanded military liaison team would be dispatched to work with the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council, which is positioning itself as a democratic alternative to Gaddafi’s rule.
Hague said the team would help the rebels improve “organisational structures, communications and logistics”, but emphasised: “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 [transitional council’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 anti-government forces. —