The SAS’s humiliation in Libya triggered civil war in government yesterday as a blame game erupted between Downing Street, the Foreign Office and the military.
Mr Hague, who signed the final order, accepted ‘full responsibility’ for the debacle but he refused to accept the blame.
He passed the buck to Armed Forces chiefs, saying they decided to send the heavily-armed team into rebel held territory by helicopter in the dead of night.
He told MPs he had signed off the plans ‘based on professional and military advice’.
And Mr Hague then made clear that David Cameron had given the green light after Downing Street sought to cast him as the fall guy.
The fiasco follows Mr Hague’s mistaken claim that Gaddafi had fled Libya for Venezuela, the Government’s late start to the evacuation of British nationals and uncertainty over its position on a no-fly zone.
t also opened a new Coalition split as former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell dismissed the abortive mission as ‘ill-conceived, poorly planned and embarrassingly executed’.
In Libya, rebels said the affair had left Britain less trusted than France. They said the UK seemed more interested in Libya’s vast oil wealth than helping them beat Colonel Gaddafi and win democracy.
A senior figure, Mustafa Gheriani, said: ‘We are not stupid. Everyone knows that Libya has enormous oil wealth, and of course we realise that Western countries are going to be interested in the oil.
‘But Britain and the United States seem to be more interested in carving up the pie than helping us win the war.’
Another senior member of the council, added: ‘If there are oil spoils to be fought over, the French are the ones we prefer because they are treating us like adults.’
In statement to the Commons, William Hague said the mission went wrong after a ‘serious misunderstanding’ with the rebels on the ground ‘about their role’.
He said future missions would be launched to establish links with the opposition.
MPs reacted with incredulity to claims that the mission was solely about making diplomatic links.
They questioned why protection for the MI6 man could not have been provided by Royal Marines based on HMS Cumberland, which was moored in Benghazi just two miles from rebel HQ.
Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander ridiculed Mr Hague’s explanations calling on him to ‘get a grip’.
He said: ‘The British public are entitled to wonder whether, if some new neighbours moved into the Foreign Secretary’s street, he would introduce himself by ringing the doorbell or instead choose to climb over the fence in the middle of the night.’
Yesterday Mr Cameron’s aides sought to distance the Prime Minister from the fiasco. His official spokesman said:
‘The Foreign Secretary takes these decisions.’
MoD sources reacted with fury to criticism of the military: ‘Before ministers sign the authorisation papers they are given meticulous detail of the plans.’
Further embarrassing details of the abortive mission were revealed when it emerged the ‘pathfinder’ team was also charged with scouting out hotel rooms for a later delegation of diplomats.
Rebels hold off Gaddafi forces in his own backyard
From Bill Neely, ITV News International Editor in Zawiyah
Thousands of bullets filled Tripoli’s Mediterranean air, as Libyans who love their leader celebrated his latest victories; Zawiyah, Misrata, Tobruk, Benghazi.
‘Go and see for yourselves,’ Gaddafi’s spokesman told me. So I did; to Zawiyah at least.
There was no point going to Tobruk and Benghazi. Not because they are 400 miles away across the desert but because they are so obviously in the hands of rebels.
Zawiyah is different. Only 30 miles from Tripoli, it’s known as the capital’s back door and so it’s strategically important.
If it’s in government hands then Gaddafi really is as safe as houses in his capital.
So off we went. After checkpoints and back roads and dirt tracks, dodging the militias who would send us packing back to Tripoli, we spotted a road block in the distance. And smoke.
I looked through binoculars and was stunned to see, in the hands of one of the young men, a rebel flag.
We approached them and, sure enough, they led us into the rebel held centre of Zawiyah. Gaddafi’s tanks lay around like broken toys. The walls were holed by huge tank rounds. Bullet casings carpeted the ground and rebels fired off their weapons.
And occasionally there was the crump of an exploding round. The army had just finished its fourth attempt to take Zawiyah and the buildings were still smouldering or on fire, the fighters in the main square exhausted. Fifteen fresh graves had appeared in the dirt plot off the square to add to the five we’d seen a few days ago.
But it is at the hospital that Zawiyah’s secrets are hidden.
Here, they told me that there had been a massacre; the killing of civilians, in bursts of indiscriminate fire; firing at men and women in doorways, into their homes, through their windows, with tank shells and heavy weapons.
Seventy people had been treated at the hospital for injuries – ‘mostly shoot to kill injuries. Head, neck and upper torso injuries’ – said a surgeon.
One of his colleagues, another doctor, told me he had been shot at that morning while going to work in his white coat, by government forces. He was quite certain where the gunfire had come from.
Another doctor in a makeshift clinic told me two of his medical assistants, both men, both wearing white coats, had been shot dead near the centre of the town. Again, he was absolutely certain it had been by government militia.
I saw two damaged ambulances. One with bullet holes through the chassis. Another, more badly damaged, had been struck by a missile or grenade. It’s impossible to verify who fired at them, but the medical staff say they were hit from the government side.
The doctors are angry because they are treating both sides. They have saved the lives of Gaddafi’s soldiers and those who tried to kill them. They are abiding by the Hippocratic oath, by the rules of their profession.
From their testimony, Gaddafi is not abiding by the rules of war, which forbid the deliberate targeting of doctors, medical staff and civilians.
Gaddafi may eventually take Zawiyah but he may pay a heavy price for this, and all the other victories he celebrates prematurely.
He may pay with an indictment at the International Criminal Court for War Crimes.
But his supporters are adamant; great victories are being won; the Al Qaeda backed terrorists are beaten; peace is coming. They fervently believe it; they have been told, after all, by Gaddafi’s
Orwellian media and so they celebrate.
The two sides, in what is increasingly looking like a low level civil war, are fighting a war of perceptions. They are battling for the mantle of momentum, trying to convince six million Libyans that they have victory in their sights.
So Gaddafi tries to show that his counteroffensive, in places like Zawiyah, is unstoppable. And the rebels try to prove that they are an irresistible force. The result is two competing and wildly different versions of what reality is here. Militarily, the result appears to be a stalemate.
On the frontline in eastern Libya, the news was not encouraging for the rebels.
For all the talk of an offensive marching westwards there was a nagging, unspoken feeling here that Gaddafi loyalists could very well push east and retake the key oil town of Ras Lanuf, which the rebels had won on Friday.
There was a feeling both sides are heading to a major conflict around the town.
Certainly, if the activity overhead was anything to go by, the regime had not given up on the town. Air strikes were regular, if ineffectual, throughout the day. There was even talk that one hit a family car.
The rebels fought back as best they could, shooting at the jets with machine guns, and anti-aircraft guns.