Britain is poised to send an informal diplomatic mission to Benghazi in eastern Libya to establish closer contact with groups fighting Muammer Gaddafi and improve London’s intelligence of conditions on the ground.
In a move that indicates Britain wants to deepen relations with groups leading the Libyan uprising, the diplomats are thought likely to set out for Benghazi in the next few days.
A Whitehall official said: “Having a presence on the ground allows us to get a better understanding about what’s happening. It’s about getting first-hand information and analysis.”
Officials insist that at present there is no question of London giving direct material support to the rebel groups and that the international arms embargo on Libya covers the entire country.
Nevertheless, the arrival of the informal mission could be significant if, as many expect, Libya descends into a protracted civil war or a stalemate between Colonel Gaddafi’s supporters in the west and the leaders of the rebel uprising in the east.
“Everyone is focused right now on whether there will be some heavy western military intervention such as no-fly zones or arming the rebels,” said a defence analyst. “But before you get to that point there are lots of things governments can do to help tip the strategic advantage in favour of the rebels.
“You could help them market their oil assets, help shore up their television and broadcast capabilities and help give them raw intelligence. This is the kind of thing a diplomatic mission might start covertly doing,” he said.
British diplomats say that working with the rebel groups will be a challenging task because they represent a wide range of tribes. “They are not exactly a homogenous community of people,” said one Whitehall figure.
David Cameron’s National Security Council met on Friday to consider the Libya crisis. Military planners are working on a range of options for full-scale military action if the situation were to deteriorate and many more people were killed.
But the US has expressed unease this week about establishing a no-fly zone over the region and officials stress that their current work is focused on contingency planning.
British officials noted on Friday that troops stationed in the UK from 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, otherwise known as the Black Watch, has been on short notice to provide assistance to evacuation and humanitarian efforts in Libya.
Get alerts on UK coalition government when a new story is published