A British special forces team held captive by Libyan rebels was released unharmed yesterday after a diplomatic mission to help the opposition ended in humiliation.

The eight men were said to be escorting British diplomats on a secret mission to forge links with the rebel leadership when they were arrested and held for more than two days.

They were on their way home yesterday on board HMS Cumberland. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said: "The team went to Libya to initiate contacts with the opposition. They experienced difficulties, which have now been satisfactorily resolved. They have now left Libya."

Libyan state television broadcast what it said was a phone conversation between Britain's ambassador to Libya, Richard Northern, and a rebel spokesman for the former Justice Minister, Mustapha Abdel Jalil.

Northern, negotiating on the team's behalf, explained it was a "misunderstanding".

The rebel leader responded: "They made a big mistake, coming with a helicopter in an open area."

Northern responded: "I didn't know how they were coming."

The episode is a rebuff to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who has been accused of sabre rattling in his attempts to help the rebels, and yet another setback to his Libya strategy. However, Hague said the Government planned to send more missions.

The team members were believed to be from the Special Boat Service (SBS), the marine equivalent of the SAS, which flew into the country the previous weekend to rescue British citizens trapped by the conflict.

Witnesses said a party of 20 had landed by helicopter in the desert 10km from Benina airport east of Benghazi on Friday and were met by other men on the ground. They were, some reports suggested, arrested when they arrived at a compound in Benghazi and were found to be carrying weapons, explosives and maps.

"They [the rebel army] did capture some British special forces. They could not ascertain if they were friends or foes," said a rebel source in Benghazi yesterday, adding: "We do not know why they [the British Government] did not get in touch first or [detail] the purpose of their mission."

Both sides appeared intent on resolving the matter swiftly yesterday with reports that the men were being treated well.

Diplomatic sources said the British team were under the impression that they had received the agreement of the provisional Government recently set up in Benghazi. However, that Government does not yet have a coherent structure.


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