LONDON, March 6 (Reuters) - Libyan rebels have captured a British special forces unit in the east of the country after a secret diplomatic mission to make contact with opposition leaders backfired, Britain’s Sunday Times reported. The team, understood to number up to eight SAS soldiers, were intercepted as they escorted a junior diplomat through rebel-held territory, the newspaper said.
The Foreign Office said in a brief statement it could neither “confirm or deny” the report.
Earlier on Saturday the Geneva-based Human Rights Solidarity group, which employs a number of Libyan exiles, told Reuters by telephone that a team of “eight special forces personnel” had been seized by rebels. Both the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office repeatedly declined to comment on the group’s report.
The SAS intervention apparently angered Libyan opposition figures, who ordered the soldiers locked up on a military base, according to the Sunday Times.
Opponents of longtime Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi fear he could use any evidence of Western military intervention to rally patriotic support away from a two-week-old uprising against his 41-year autocratic rule.
Citing Libyan sources, the Sunday Times said the special forces troops were taken by rebels to Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city and epicentre of the insurrection, and hauled before one of its most senior politicians for questioning.
The paper said the junior diplomat they were escorting was preparing the way for a visit by a more senior colleague ahead of establishing diplomatic relations with the rebels.
The Sunday Times said Libyan opposition officials were said to be trying to hush up the incident for fear of a backlash from ordinary Libyans.
Reporting by Stefano Ambrogi; editing by Mark Heinrich