In this report, Al Jazeera showed footage of six westerners, casually clothed and five of them armed, talking with opposition fighters at the front line.
An al-Jazeera report appears to show western special forces on the frontline in Libya, in what the TV channel said was “evidence for the first time of allied boots on the ground”.
A group of six westerners are clearly visible in the report by al-Jazeera from Dafniya, described as the westernmost point of the rebel lines west of the town of Misrata. Five of them are armed and wear informal sand-coloured clothes, peaked caps and cotton Arab scarves.
The sixth, apparently most senior of the group, carries no visible weapon and wears a pink, short-sleeved shirt. It is possible he is an intelligence officer. The group is seen talking to rebels and then quickly leaving the scene on being spotted by the al-Jazeera television crew.
The reporter, Tony Birtley, a veteran war correspondent, said: “Here a group of armed foreigners, possibly British, are seen liaising with the fighters. It could be to facilitate forthcoming helicopter attacks.” In the report, first broadcast on Sunday, Birtley did not say why he thought the soldiers were British.
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 opposition fighters when they landed on an abortive mission to meet rebel leaders in Benghazi, in an embarrassing episode for the SAS. The group were withdrawn soon afterwards and a new “liaison team” was sent in their place.
In April William Hague, the foreign secretary, announced that an expanded military liaison team would be dispatched to work with the National Transitional Council in Benghazi. Hague said the team would help the rebels improve “organisational structures, communications and logistics” but stressed that: “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 soldiers and other experienced soldiers to Libya under the cover of private security companies, paid for by Arab states, to train the rebel forces.
In the past few days there have been British press reports that SAS soldiers would be flying in British Apache helicopter gunships now being deployed off the Libyan coast. Their job would be to help the pilots identify pro-Gaddafi targets on the ground.
Asked for comment on Sunday, a Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said: “We don’t have any forces out there.”
The subject is sensitive as the March UN security council resolution authorising the use of force in Libya specifically excludes “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”.
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