British troops have been put on stand-by for deployment to Libya if the crisis in the country worsens.
Sources confirmed that The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, had been placed on heightened readiness, prepared to deploy to North Africa at 24 hours’ notice.
The 600-strong infantry unit returned from Afghanistan in late 2009 and is based at Fort George near Inverness. “They’re ready, just in case,” said a source.
The Ministry of Defence insisted that the battalion was prepared for humanitarian relief operations, not combat.
But the disclosure that British troops are on stand-by came amid growing concerns that Col Gaddafi’s struggle to retain power could take Libya into a protracted civil war and cause a humanitarian crisis.
Nato members yesterday agreed to draw up contingency plans for how their armed forces could intervene. Britain is also preparing to send diplomats and specialist advisers to the eastern city of Benghazi, where the disparate Libyan opposition is based.
Fighting between anti-Gaddafi groups and the dictator’s forces intensified yesterday. Up to 17 people were killed by an explosion in Benghazi last night, which rebels claimed was an air strike by Gaddafi forces.
Loyalist troops staged an all-out assault on Zawiya, 30 miles from the capital, Tripoli, saying they hoped to capture the town centre overnight. Snipers and militias, that rebels said included mercenaries, moved on the town square in mid-morning. Both sides said the leader of the rebel group which had occupied the centre for more than a week was killed.
By mid-afternoon, state television claimed the town had fallen to government forces, but that was later retracted. Rebels admitted they were fighting with their backs to the wall but said they were not giving up.
“There has been fighting here all day,” said one man by telephone. “We are in a very difficult position. They have snipers and have used mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.”
Both sides said there had been an unknown number of casualties, with at least 15 dead but probably more. “I visited the hospital and mosque. I think there have been 25 to 30 people killed but it may be more,” said the rebel.
In the east of the country, loyalists lost further ground. Opposition forces appeared to have captured the outskirts of Ras Lanuf, an oil town, last night, bringing the uprising to within 150 miles of Sirte, the Libyan leader’s birthplace.
Aid officials last night warned that Gaddafi forces had stopped refugees crossing into Tunisia, turning thousands of migrant workers into hostages. Up to 15,000 people have been walking daily through the Ras Jedir border post for the past week but yesterday fewer than 2,000 crossed.
President Barack Obama was cautious about military action, suggesting that US planning was just preparing for a humanitarian crisis.
By James Kirkup, and Richard Spencer in Tripoli 10:34PM GMT 04 Mar 2011
Source: The Telegraph