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.

REGIONAL UNREST
EGYPT

Dozens of men in plain clothes armed with swords and petrol bombs attacked protesters in Cairo yesterday at a demonstration demanding reform of security services with a reputation for brutality, witnesses said. The clash was at the headquarters of Egypt's state security, a force whose abuses fuelled an uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, they said. It appeared to be the first time armed men in plain clothes had deployed in force against reform activists in central Cairo since Mubarak was forced to step down and hand power to the military, which has charted a course to democratic elections. In the past two days, protesters have broken into 11 offices belonging to the state security apparatus across the country, seizing documents which they feared would be destroyed by officers to cover up abuses perpetrated by the force.

BAHRAIN

Thousands of Shia opposition supporters blocked the entrance to the Bahraini Prime Minister's office but failed to disrupt a Government meeting yesterday as the campaign for reform in the strategic Gulf nation entered its third week. Bahrain's Shia majority has long complained of discrimination and political persecution in the island nation, which is ruled by a Sunni dynasty. The protesters demanded the Prime Minister step down because of corruption and a deadly crackdown on the opposition in which seven people were killed. Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the Prime Minister and the King's uncle, has been in power for 40 years.

SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi security forces have detained at least 22 minority Shia who protested last week against discrimination, activists said yesterday, as the kingdom tried to keep the wave of Arab unrest outside its borders. Saudi Shia have staged small demonstrations
in the Eastern Province, which holds much of the oil wealth of the world's top crude exporter. Rights activist Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb later said one protester had been freed. Interior Ministry officials could not be reached for comment.

YEMEN

Government supporters wielding knives and handguns attacked protesters in Ibb, southern Yemen, yesterday, leaving one dead and 37 injured in the latest in weeks of demonstrations demanding President Ali Abdullah
Saleh step down after 32 years in power, a demand he has repeatedly rejected while trying to assuage opposition groups. Saleh has said he would not seek another term in office in 2013, and offered to form a unity Government with opposition figures, but the overtures have failed to appease the protesters.

- INDEPENDENT, AGENCIES