LONDON – Some of Britain's most elite soldiers have been training Libyan forces in counterterrorism and surveillance for the past six months, a U.K. newspaper said Saturday.
The Daily Telegraph said that a contingent of between four and 14 men from the Special Air Service, or SAS, were working with Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's soldiers in Libya, a country once notorious for its support of terrorism.
The paper cited an unidentified SAS source as saying that the training was seen as part of the deal to release Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, whose return to Libya last month outraged Americans and raised questions over the nature of Britain's relationship with Qaddafi's authoritarian regime.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown and other British government officials have emphasized Libya's remarkable transformation from rogue state to Western ally and the need to keep Qaddafi on board since he renounced terrorism and dismantled his country's clandestine nuclear program in 2003.
But media reports have suggested that the prisoner exchange agreement that paved the way for al-Megrahi release was motivated in part by a desire to secure access to Libya's vast energy reserves. British Justice Secretary Jack Straw seemed to endorse that claim when he told the Telegraph last week that trade played "a very big part" in the negotiations over the prisoner deal.
Britain's thirst for Libya's oil and gas resources was again thrust into the spotlight earlier this month when it was reported that Brown had refused to lobby Qaddafi for compensation for the Britons killed and injured by Libyan-supplied plastic explosives used by the Irish Republican Army in the 1980s and '90s.
In a letter written last year to a survivor of one of the IRA bombings, then-junior Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell explained that Libya was now "a vital partner ... in guaranteeing a secure energy future for the U.K."
Britain's military refused to comment on the Telegraph's report Saturday. The Foreign Office said Britain had "ongoing cooperation with Libya in the field of defense" but refused to comment on the issue of special forces.
It denied in a statement that the defense cooperation had anything to do with al-Megrahi's release.
Britain's secretive SAS is among the world's best respected commando units. It was created during World War II for attacks behind Axis lines, but the group has since turned its attention to fighting terrorists. Among its best-known operations was the 1980 raid on the Iranian Embassy in London, which broke an Iraqi-backed siege. The SAS also played an active role in suppressing IRA rebels — many of whom were supplied with Libyan weapons and explosives.
Robin Horsfall, an SAS soldier who participated in the Iranian Embassy siege and fought the IRA in Northern Ireland, said giving special forces training to the Libyans was putting lives at risk.
"People will die as a result of this decision," he told Sky News television, explaining that the Libyans "can learn how to defeat what we do."
He added that the military's refusal to talk about the report was telling.
"When they say 'no comment' we can read our own interpretation into that," he told the broadcaster.