by Laura Lynch
The British government is sending a team of military officers to assist rebel forces in eastern Libya. The officers will join an existing diplomatic team in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
British officials say it's a limited mission aimed at helping the rebel's with military organization, not with military training. But the move is drawing both questions and criticism.
It was just a month ago that the United Nations approved the resolutions authorizing member states to take all necessary measures to protect civilians in Libya but they explicitly ruled out foreign military actions on the ground.
So today Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, chose his words carefully in announcing the deployment of military officers to work in Libyan soil.
"Their purpose is to help save civilian lives, which of course is the purpose of the United Nations resolutions. And they will do that by helping the Libyan opposition with their organisational structures, with things like communications and logistics, how to coordinate humanitarian aid and medical supplies," Hague said. "So, they're people with the expertise in those sorts of things, in organization and structures. They're not there, I stress, to train fighting forces, to arm fighting forces or, of course, to take part in any fighting themselves."
Hague's reassurances aren't enough for some here. Conservative member of Parliament John Baron has seen Britain offer the rebels body armor, communications equipment and now this.
"What seems to have happened over these last ten days is that we're creeping, there's this mission creep into regime change is making a number of us nervous," Baron said.
Colonel Richard Kemp used to advise the government on military operations.
He said those who worry may well have reason, based on what has happened in other conflicts.
"I think you have to be prepared to go to where the battle leads you to an extent. Obviously you have to have maybe certain limitations, certain red lines in your mind and sometimes they have to be changed, but history shows us you can't enter a combat zone in any capacity and know exactly what's going to happen next," Kemp said.
Kemp went further; he suggested that protecting civilians may require foreign forces to enter Libya. "If you go to the extreme step of bombing another country as we have that's a very major decision and if your objectives are worth doing that then I think your objectives may be worth going further and putting people on the ground if that's going to have an effect on multiplying the combat capability of the rebels".
The government isn't ready to go that far but William Hague was careful not to rule out arming the rebels in the future.
"We cannot foresee every situation that would arise," Kemp said. Our interpretation of the resolutions is that in certain restricted circumstances it's legally permissible to give people the ability to defend themselves. But that's not what we're doing. We're helping with non-lethal equipment — such as telecommunications and body armor."
In Tripoli, Libya's deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaim once again warned foreign troops to stay away — even if they come to protect humanitarian workers. "If there is any deployment of any armed personnel on Libyan ground, and we will have access, there will be fighting and the Libyan government will not take it as a humanitarian mission, it will be taken as a military mission."
The announcement in London comes just as the rebel forces plead for more foreign firepower to target Gaddafi forces in the besieged city of Misrata. Britain is increasingly ready to take the side of the rebels in the name of protecting civilians but there's little sign the UN backed coalition will back any plan to send troops into Libya.