Britain Said Negotiating Release of Its Soldiers Held by Libya Rebels

British Defense Secretary says diplomatic team in Benghazi, declines to comment on whether special forces had been captured or were in peril.

LONDON/CARDIFF - Britain was Sunday negotiating to secure the release of a special forces unit believed to have been captured by rebels in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, a human rights activist said.

On Saturday the Geneva-based Human Rights Solidarity group, which employs a number of Libyan exiles, said Saturday a team of "eight special forces personnel" had been seized by rebels.

Benghazi rebels 6.3.11 Reuters

On Sunday, the rights group said the soldiers were apprehended in a location 10 km from Benina airport, which serves Benghazi.

An activist with the group, Jiumma Elomami, said "they are under arrest but we have information that the British authorities are now negotiating with the new opposition council to negotiate their release."

He said it was not clear whether British officials had also been arrested alongside the crack troops from a unit which has seen service in Iraq and Afghanistan and has a special place in British military folklore.

Rebels in Benghazi confirmed on Sunday that they had captured members of the British special forces but said they were being treated well and the issue would be resolved soon.

"They [he rebel army] did capture some British special forces. They could not ascertain if they were friends or foes. For our safety we are holding them and we expect this situation to be resolved soon," a source in the rebel movement said.

Defense Secretary Liam Fox said a British diplomatic team was in Benghazi but he declined comment on whether special forces had been captured or were in peril.

"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 on that for reasons I'm quite sure you understand," Fox told the BBC.

Libya is in turmoil as rebels fight to end Muammar Gadhafi's 41-year rule.

'Secret mission'

The Sunday Times reported that Libyan rebels had captured the unit in the east of the country after a secret diplomatic mission to make contact with opposition leaders backfired.

The team was intercepted as they escorted a junior diplomat through rebel-held territory, the newspaper said.

The junior diplomat was preparing the way for a visit by a more senior colleague in an attempt to establish diplomatic contact with the rebels, the newspaper said.

The SAS intervention apparently angered Libyan opposition figures, who ordered the soldiers locked up on a military base, according to the Sunday Times.

Gadhafi's opponents fear he could use any evidence of Western military intervention to rally support.

Britain has taken a strong stance against Gaddafi and wants to work with rebel groups to help oust him from power.

"It is a very difficult situation. There are a number of different opposition groups to Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. They do seem relatively disparate," Fox said.

"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," he said.

Fox ruled out the use of British military ground forces in Libya but said a no-fly zone remained a possibility. NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels on March 10-11 would examine no-fly zone options.