Senior Tories are in a row with the Government over what they claim are “disastrous” plans to station up to 1,000 British troops in a specially-created “Green Zone” in the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
The plans are part of a joint British-Italian military assistance package to Libya’s new unity government, which was formed last month in a bid to end more than a year of civil war.
The Government has insisted that British troops will do only training rather than front-line combat, and that no firm decisions have been made about where they would be stationed.
But members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee say moves are being considered to base the training mission in Tripoli itself, despite opposition among Libyans to any kind of foreign troop presence on their soil.
Crispin Blunt, the Tory MP an ex-Army officer who chairs the committee, told the Daily Telegraph that the troops would be sitting targets for attacks by the Islamic State jihadists that now control parts of Libya. They could also be at risk from militias opposed to the new unity government.
“This particular plan of sending Western troops anywhere near Tripoli would be a singularly bad idea,” said Mr Blunt, who was an adviser to Malcolm Rifkind during his terms as Defence and Foreign Secretary in the 1990s.
“Even if you say it is just a training mission rather than a combat one, any foreign troop presence in Tripoli will be seen as a Western intervention. Everybody and their mother will be trying to have a pop at them.”
The military assistance package is being offered to the new Libyan government amid concerns that Isil is strengthening its hold in the country, where it now controls Colonel Gaddafi’s home city of Sirte.
The mission’s job would be to train Libyan troops in general security duties rather than in how to tackle Isil. That latter task is expected to be left to Western special forces units working with existing Libyan militias.
But even a training mission is a sensitive issue in Libya, where a number of powerful factions see the new government as a UN-created imposition.
Even Libyans who support the training mission have told The Telegraph that they would prefer it to be based in neighbouring Tunisia, if only so the new government does not seem reliant on foreign military might, and as the Sunday Telegraph reported last month, small units of British special forces are already believed to be in operation in the country along with US and French counterparts.
Mr Blunt’s concerns are of a more practical nature. The Foreign Affairs Committee made a research trip to Tunisia and Egypt earlier this month, where they were briefed on the Libyan situation by diplomats, including officials from Britain. They say they learned of relatively detailed plans to station the mission – which would also include 5,000 Italian troops – at Tripoli’s Mitiga military airport.
Mitiga is heavily guarded by Libyan forces, and as such could also be turned into a Baghdad style secure “Green Zone” for foreign forces.
But Mr Blunt warned that troops stationed there could still be easily attacked by hostile militias, many of which have access to mortars and rockets.
Isil terrorists, who carbombed a Libyan-run police training college in the city of Zlitan in January, killing nearly 70 people, would also try to break in.
“Having 1,000 troops in Libya would be a disaster, it will Lebanon in 1983 all over again,” said Mr Blunt, referring that year’s suicide-bombing of a military barracks in Beirut which killed 299 American and French servicemen. “It would be infinitely better to have such a training mission in Tunisia.”
Mr Blunt has already been at loggerheads with the Government over a letter he sent to the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, on March 15, where he demanded the Government explain to Parliament in more detail about its plans for any deployments to Libya.
In the letter, he said he had been told during his visit to Egypt and Tunisia that the mission would also provide security for the new Libyan unity government, and that the Government had been due to agree the UK contribution at a European conference the following week.
The Telegraph has now also seen a letter sent by response from the Foreign Secretary to Mr Blunt, saying he had drawn the wrong conclusions about the mission.
“I have taken the precaution of checking with our embassies in Cairo and Tunis” Mr Hammond wrote. “They have confirmed that at no point did British diplomats brief you to this effect.”
Mr Hammond’s letter also insists that the UK is “a long way” from any deployment, and that it would first require a formal request from the new Libyan government.
However, in recent weeks, well-placed sources have told The Telegraph that a Tripoli-based training mission is indeed being considered, as teaching troops in-country is considered to work better than doing so abroad.
A previous British training arrangement for Libyan troops ended in chaos two years ago when Libyan soldiers stationed at Bassingbourn Barracks were accused of sexual assault.
Mr Blunt, however, said he believed that the Government had quietly shelved its plans for a Tripoli training mission as a result of his protests. “I hope we have put a bullet in this project,” he added.