The Defence Secretary, Foreign Secretary and the Chief of the Defence Staff's official spokesman have all spoken over the weekend about UK military and diplomatic efforts regarding the Libyan crisis.
The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, issued the following statement yesterday:
I can confirm that a small British diplomatic team has been in Benghazi. The team went to Libya to initiate contacts with the opposition. They experienced difficulties, which have now been satisfactorily resolved. They have now left Libya.
We intend, in consultation with the opposition, to send a further team to strengthen our dialogue in due course. This diplomatic effort is part of the UK’s wider work on Libya, including our ongoing humanitarian support.
We continue to press for Gaddafi to step down and we will work with the international community to support the legitimate ambitions of the Libyan people.
The Defence Secretary, Dr Liam Fox, appeared on the Andrew Marr TV show yesterday morning during which he was asked the extent to which the UK is trying to get in touch with whoever is leading the opposition in Benghazi and other parts of Libya. Dr Fox said:
It is a very difficult situation to be able to understand in detail. There are a number of different opposition groups to Colonel Gaddafi in Libya; they do seem relatively disparate.
We want to clearly understand what the dynamic is there because we want to be able to work with them to ensure the demise of the Gaddafi regime, to see a transition to greater stability in Libya and ultimately to more representative government, so getting a picture of that is relatively difficult, as is widely reported.
Communications are being interrupted, there are difficulties with mobile phones, with the internet potentially being interfered with, so we are trying to build a picture.
It’s essential that the Government does that and it’s essential that all Western governments do that so that we are able to get a clear idea of what we might be able to do in terms of helping the people of Libya.
Asked if Colonel Gaddafi’s regime uses warplanes and tanks to slaughter his own people, can Britain stand aside, Dr Fox said:
Well it’s not just Britain, of course, it’s the international community, and the Prime Minister has been making it very clear for the last week that it would not be acceptable to see the air force, for example, used to slaughter the people of Libya; that is why the Prime Minister was very keen that we did the contingency planning for a no-fly zone.
We have been discussing, and I’ve been discussing with officials at NATO, exactly the sort of scoping we would like to get done, and then, of course, there is a meeting of NATO defence ministers at the end of this week where the range of work that’s been done by NATO will be set out and we will have to make some very difficult decisions. For example, if you were to decide on a no-fly zone there would be a number of options: would it be the whole of Libya, would it just be the population centres, would it just be focused on Tripoli, for example - a lot of technical decisions.
The important thing is that we get the work done before we have to get to that point, and had it not been for the Prime Minister pushing the issue I rather fear that we would have been behind the curve.
Asked if there was any possibility at all of British ground forces being involved in Libya, Dr Fox said:
No. We had a spearhead element made ready to deal with humanitarian aid and it was purely humanitarian aid; it was to be there in case we needed more help, for example, in evacuating our own nationals or whether we had to help with the humanitarian crisis. There was no, and there is no, plan to use British land forces.
Speaking on Friday, Major General John Lorimer, the Chief of the Defence Staff’s official spokesman, gave a comprehensive summary of what the UK military has done so far to help evacuate people from Libya. He said:
Ten days ago, on 22 February, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office [FCO] asked the Ministry of Defence to scope military options to support the civil and commercial efforts to extract British nationals safely from Libya.
The situation was fast-moving, potentially dangerous and deteriorating hour by hour. It required a swift, co-ordinated and well-planned response from Defence, working alongside other government departments and in concert with wider UK and international efforts.
Maritime, land and air assets were tasked both from the UK and elsewhere to assist in a large scale and complex operation, involving in excess of 800 personnel from across the three Services. As of today, military operations have led to the evacuation of 1,387 people from Libya, 507 of whom were British nationals.