Britain mum on reports SAS troops held in Libya
Britain said Sunday that it had a small diplomatic team in Benghazi but refused to confirm reports that a diplomat and an elite special forces unit were being held in Libya's second city.
A Libyan opposition spokesman, confirming British media reports, said several British soldiers and a London diplomat were detained after landing in rebel-held Libya but are "safe and well".
The Sunday Times newspaper had said the Special Air Service (SAS) unit was captured along with the junior diplomat they were escorting through the rebel-held east and who was seeking contact with opponents of Libyan leader Moamer Gathafi.
"We can neither confirm nor deny the report," a Foreign Office spokeswoman said.
Later, Foreign Secretary William Hague would not be drawn on the comments from Libya regarding the detention of British soldiers.
But he called on Gathafi "to put an immediate stop to the use of armed force against the Libyan people".
Prime Minister David Cameron again urged him to step down.
"It is time for Colonel Gathafi to go," Conservative leader Cameron said as he addressed a conference of his party in the Welsh capital Cardiff.
In Benghazi, a correspondent for the BBC said he had been informed that a helicopter carrying six people dressed in black and carrying weapons had landed in the region in the early hours of Friday.
"These six people who came off the plane were in black clothings which make them sound like they were SAS forces," he told BBC television.
According to his sources, they were arrested and taken to a military base although the situation was expected to be resolved fairly soon.
"The opposition here have an understanding of the situation that these people are not hostile people. The problem was to arriving on a helicopter, in the middle of the night, carrying weapons. You can understand the sort of fear that provoked here," the correspondent added.
The defence ministry said it did not comment on operation matters relating to the special forces, while Defence Secretary Liam Fox told BBC television: "I can confirm that a small British diplomatic team is in Benghazi.
"We are in touch with them but it would be inappropriate for me to comment further," he added.
For his part, Mustafa Gheriani, spokesman for the rebels' self-declared national council in Libya's second city of Benghazi, refused to comment.
"I have absolutely nothing to say," he told AFP.
The Sunday Times claimed that the uninvited appearance of the SAS alongside the diplomat "angered Libyan opposition figures who ordered the soldiers to be locked up in a military base".
Opponents of Gathafi "fear he could use any evidence of Western military interference to rally patriotic support for his regime", the weekly broadsheet added.
The newspaper said that according to Libyan sources, the SAS soldiers were taken by rebels to Benghazi, held by the opposition, and hauled up before a senior figure.
The Sunday Times said a British source, who confirmed the men had been detained, said the diplomat they were protecting had wanted to make contact with the rebels to prepare the way for a visit by a senior colleague.
It cited a source close to the opposition leadership as saying rebel officials were worried that Libyan people might think from the escort party that "foreign troops have started to interfere by landing in Libya".
British service personnel have already been involved in the rescue of British nationals working on oil installations in remote desert camps.
In Britain on Saturday, the defence ministry said about 200 troops had been placed on standby to help with evacuation and humanitarian operations in Libya.
However a YouGov poll of 2,413 adults for The Sunday Times found low support for using troops in Libya.