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In Libya, Captured British Soldiers Released

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, the British agents also left in their wake plenty of unanswered questions.

PHILIP REEVES: The group ran into some armed Libyan security guards who detained them. The negotiations for their release dragged on over much of the weekend. At one stage, the British ambassador to Libya, Richard Northern, called an unnamed Libyan rebel representative to request the team be freed.

RICHARD NORTHERN: We sent a small group just to find if there was a hotel, if everything was working and there was somewhere they could stay and work when we get our group organized.

REEVES: Mustafa Gheriani of Libya's opposition interim transitional council told the BBC the fact that the British arrived secretly by helicopter also aroused suspicions.

MUSTAFA GHERIANI: If they wanted to do something confidential or keep it classified, all they could have done is just send a message and we have welcomed them through the seaport or being at airport.

REEVES: The SAS could have sailed in on a British warship, as others have done, or traveled in by land like many foreign journalists. Today, in Britain's parliament, the foreign secretary, William Hague, was peppered with questions. He confirmed the prime minister, David Cameron, knew in advance of the SAS operation. But Hague accepted personal responsibility for sending what he called a small diplomatic team to Libya. He said the mission was to make initial contacts with the rebel leadership. And added...

WILLIAM HAGUE: They were withdrawn yesterday after a serious misunderstanding about their role, leading to their temporary detention.

REEVES: Hague said he'd be sending more diplomatic missions to eastern Libya soon. His answers didn't satisfy Ming Campbell of the Liberal Party, a partner in Britain's ruling coalition.

MING CAMPBELL: Isn't it clear that this mission was ill-conceived, poorly planned and embarrassingly executed?

REEVES: Douglas Alexander, who holds the foreign portfolio for the opposition Labour Party, made fun of Hague.

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: The British public are entitled to wonder whether if some new neighbors moved into the foreign secretary's street, he would introduce himself by ringing the doorbell or instead choose to climb over the fence in the middle of the night.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.

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