Libya "mercenary" claim turns spotlight on special ops

BRUSSELS/LONDON Tue Sep 20, 2011 8:20am EDT

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BRUSSELS/LONDON (Reuters) - A boast by Gaddafi loyalists that they had captured 17 foreign mercenaries this week has been greeted with skepticism, but the claim has highlighted the importance of covert military operations in the overthrow of the Libyan leader.

Gaddafi's spokesman Moussa Ibrahim has so far not made good on his promise to put the group on television and he has produced no other evidence to back his story, which was quickly denied in Western capitals.

"The lack of evidence is for the moment what I find most remarkable about the whole story. Where are the boots, where are the watches, not to mention the faces?" said Francois Heisbourg, chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The whole thing may turn out to be no more than a bold piece of disinformation by a spin doctor with nothing to lose. But it still fits in with a compelling narrative surrounding the secret side of Libya's war.

"This claim is coming from Moussa Ibrahim and a good proportion of what he has been saying is flat-out wrong," said Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

"Moussa Ibrahim has no credibility to protect, so if it turns out to be completely wrong there are no repercussions for him -- it's just a good piece of psychological warfare."

In focusing on "mercenaries," Ibrahim has chosen an issue that, in its broadest terms, has been seen as crucial in the tortuous struggle to topple Gaddafi.

Ibrahim's use of the word may have been intended as a reference to special forces employed as private military contractors to provide "a degree of deniability," Joshi said.

"The more distant they are from western governments, it's much less of a politically sensitive issue," he said.

While they received a boost from NATO-led air strikes against Gaddafi's army, rebel forces were for months unable to make much progress on the ground. This is where Western special forces provided vital assistance to the often disorganized revolutionaries.

"Western special forces were less involved with combat on the ground, and more focused on supplying NATO forces with intelligence on targets, supplying arms and training the rebels," said Barak Seener, a research fellow at RUSI.

"Their role has been successful and has led to an increased rate of defections, the erosion of support for Gaddafi and the rapid crumbling of his regime along with the fall of Tripoli."

In World War Two, Libya was the birthplace of Britain's Special Air Service, or SAS, which ranged over the desert to destroy German aircraft, supply dumps and railway links.

Early special forces experience in today's Libya was less successful. A group of British diplomats, reported to have included special forces soldiers, was humiliatingly captured near Benghazi during an attempt to make contact with rebel forces.

Since then, special forces operations appear to have been more productive, involving personnel from Britain, France, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, according to media reports.

Rebel units in Tripoli were secretly armed so they could rise up and help take the capital, while British agents infiltrated the city to deploy radio equipment to help target NATO air strikes in a way that would avoid civilian casualties.

France sent dozens of military advisers to organize and train the rebels. France also delivered arms to the rebels that had been supplied by Qatar.

Reuters correspondents in the field report having seen apparent evidence of foreign special forces on the ground, although their activities were never made clear. Rebels, whose accounts could not be confirmed, also spoke of assistance from CIA agents.

Heisbourg said that with Gaddafi on the run, it was now time for foreign special forces to start leaving Libya as quickly as possible as they risked getting caught up in internecine quarrels within the forces loyal to Libya's new transitional government.

While details have emerged of what special forces had done earlier in the conflict -- assistance with weapons and tactics, acting as forward air controllers for NATO bombers and providing weapons to rebel forces in the Western Mountains -- it was not clear what they might be doing now.

"People who know are not going to say and people who say obviously don't know," Heisbourg said.

(Additional reporting by Michael Georgy and Mohammed Abbas)

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