Ex-SAS soldiers and private security firm employees passing information to Nato attack helicopters, sources tell Guardian
Former SAS soldiers and other western employees of private security companies are helping Nato identify targets in the Libyan port city of Misrata, the scene of heavy fighting between Muammar Gaddafi’s forces and rebels, well-placed sources have told the Guardian.
Special forces veterans are passing details of the locations and movements of Gaddafi’s forces to the Naples headquarters of Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, Canadian commander of Nato forces, the sources said.
The targets are then verified by spy planes and US Predator drones. “One piece of human intelligence is not enough,” a source said.
The former soldiers are there with the blessing of Britain, France and other Nato countries, which have supplied them with communications equipment. They are likely to be providing information for the pilots of British and French attack helicopters, who are expected to start firing at targets in and around Misrata this week.
Four Apache helicopters are on board HMS Ocean, which is approaching Libyan waters. Twelve French Tiger helicopters are on board the amphibious assault ship Tonnerre, which is understood to be already within striking distance of the Libyan coast. The French defence minister, Gerard Longuet, has refused to say exactly when they would be deployed, but added: “In any case, very rapidly.”
The revelations about the role of the rebels’ advisers follow the filming of armed westerners on the frontline with rebel fighters in Misrata. A group of six were visible in a report by al-Jazeera from Dafniya, described as the westernmost point of the rebel lines in the city. Five of the men were armed, wearing sand-coloured clothes, baseball caps and cotton Arab scarves. The sixth, who seemed to be in charge, carried no visible weapon and wore a pink short-sleeved shirt. The six were seen talking to rebels, and quickly left after they realised they were being filmed.
The Ministry of Defence insisted it had no combat forces on the ground. The only MoD personnel were in Benghazi, it added, referring to about 10 military advisers and mentors the UK has sent there. William Hague, the foreign secretary, described the advisers as “experienced military officers”, and said they would advise the rebels on intelligence gathering, logistics and communications.
Senior British defence sources revealed in April that they were urging Arab countries to train the rebels. The sources said they were looking at hiring private security companies, many of which employ former SAS soldiers.
These private soldiers are reported to be paid by Arab countries, notably Qatar. British officials said they were not being paid by the UK government.
Those countries in favour of the decision to impose a no-fly zone, and hostile to Gaddafi, would be strongly opposed to any direct – or official – link between western advisers and Nato commanders. The advisers are being kept at arm’s length, but their role is privately welcomed.
Inside Misrata, rebel fighters are prepared for the arrival of Nato attack helicopters. One rebel commander told the Guardian Nato had issued instructions for all three sections of the frontline around the city, warning rebel fighters not to move beyond prearranged “red lines” but allowing Nato to attack anything beyond.
As a result, rebel troops were falling back, leaving many checkpoints deserted. Misrata airport, which includes military facilities abandoned by pro-Gaddafi forces, was abruptly closed to visitors and ringed with armed fighters.
Rebel commanders would not give a reason, except to say that “facilities” were being constructed there, prompting speculation that Nato may be using the airport either as a base or an emergency landing zone for helicopters that are damaged over the nearby frontline.The day before, al-Jazeera filmed armed western employees of private security companies liaising with rebel units on the frontline at Dafniya.
After Monday’s lull in the daily shelling of outlying areas of the Misrata pocket, pro-Gaddafi forces fired Grad rockets and mortars at frontline positions around Dafniya morning. The shooting halted abruptly when two Nato jets circled the area.
In Misrata itself, rebel troops echoed their ruling National Transitional Council in rejecting Gaddafi’s offer of a ceasefire followed by negotiations, which emerged after a peace mission to Tripoli by South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma.
“Look around you. You see how much value we give to Gaddafi’s promises,” said one fighter, Hishaw Muhammad, 41, as he sat in a battered, bullet-scarred shipping container that serves as a city-centre checkpoint. He pointed to the ravaged buildings on either side of the road, the result of street fighting and bombardment. “He must step down. No other solution.”
Muhammad knows well the price the town has paid for its resistance: one of his brothers is dead, his three younger brothers are at the frontline, and he is manning a checkpoint because, his father having died before the war, he must look after his mother, sisters, wife and children.
“With the Apaches. We are ready,” he said. “Before, when we were attacked, we were not experienced. But now we have leaders. We are stronger than they are.”
Rebel commanders say Gaddafi’s forces deployed around the Misrata pocket may be weakened. In recent days, the rebels have launched raids to bring back prisoners, finding mostly teenagers and terrified mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa.
The rebel troops still lack heavy weapons, but have acquired the Nato Milan anti-tank missile, which was used with devastating effect to clear fortified positions earlier in the month.
The fate of civilians in the Gaddafi-held town just west of the frontline, Zlitan, is of great concern. It is home to a heavy force from the 32nd brigade, loyal to Gaddafi’s son Khamis. Soldiers and Grad rocket launchers are interspersed among civilian housing. Any assault on the town would see civilians caught in the crossfire.
A Reuters photographer in Misrata said there was heavy fighting in the suburb of Dafniyah, in the west of the city, where the frontline is now located. Speaking from a field hospital near the frontline, she said 14 rebel fighters had been injured on Tuesday, one of them seriously.
“Gaddafi’s forces are firing Grad rockets,” she said. “The rebels tried to advance, but Gaddafi’s forces pushed them back.”
Rebel fighters, out of their familiar urban battleground and now in open ground, were being outgunned, one of their spokesmen said.
“The situation is getting more difficult for the revolutionaries because fighting is going on in open places. They do not have the same heavy weapons as the [pro-Gaddafi] brigades,” their spokesman, Abdelsalam, said from Misrata.
Major General John Lorimer, the MoD’s chief military spokesman, said RAF Tornado and Typhoon aircraft over the past few days destroyed a main battle tank near Jadu and attacked a multiple rocket launcher and support vehicles south of Zlitan. On Monday, further RAF patrols near Zlitan located five heavy transporters carrying main battle tanks; all had been destroyed or severely damaged, he said.
In Tripoli, unconfirmed reports last night suggested the anti-Gaddafi opposition was again stirring. Witnesses in the Souq al-Juma suburb of Tripoli said a large anti-government protest took place there on Monday. The protest, apparently the biggest in Tripoli since western forces began bombing the country in March, was broken up by security forces firing weapons, residents said.Asked about the incident at a news conference on Tuesday, a government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said: “I have heard of the event. I did not have enough time to get information.”
Gaddafi’s officials had earlier denied that a large anti-government demonstration took place on Monday. Large scale demonstrations in Tripoli have not taken place since protests were crushed by the security forces in February. Two large explosions were heard in the Libyan capital on Tuesday but it was not immediately clear where the bombs fell.