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Philip Hammond plays down suggestions of UK frontline role in Libya

Published 19/04/2016

Mr Hammond is due to make a statement amid speculation UK forces could be deployed
Mr Hammond is due to make a statement amid speculation UK forces could be deployed

British warplanes and battleships could be deployed to counter Islamic State (IS) in Libya although frontline fighting is not expected for UK troops , Philip Hammond has said.

The Foreign Secretary said it is "quite possible" the fledgling government of national accord (GNA) would request air and naval support to combat IS, also referred to as Daesh, as it will not be able to develop its own forces of this nature.

Mr Hammond added no request or talks on such a military deployment have taken place but he said the UK would consider the idea if it is proposed and indicated MPs would be allowed a vote.

His refusal to rule out air and naval operations in the region came after he insisted there is "no appetite" in Libya for foreign combat troops on the ground.

Mr Hammond said the UK is willing to send troops to help train and support the GNA's forces, adding: " We do not anticipate any requests from the GNA for ground combat forces to take on Daesh or any other armed groups and we have no plans to deploy troops in such a role.

"I will of course keep the House informed of any plans we develop in the future in response to requests from the Libyan government.

"But the type of mission that we currently envisage would be focused on providing training and technical support away from any frontline operations."

Labour MP Mike Gapes (Ilford South) later told Mr Hammond: "You said that there's no appetite in Libya for foreign combat troops on the ground.

"Is there any appetite in the Libyan political system for foreign air forces or foreign naval forces operating in Libyan territorial waters?"

Mr Hammond replied: "I think we've seen on the latter point already a clear wariness of any suggestion of foreign naval forces operating in Libyan territorial waters even if the focus is counter-migration rather than counter-Daesh.

"I can't rule out, and it would be wrong to rule out, any future request for air or naval support to a counter-Daesh operation.

"I can envisage prime minister (Fayez) Sarraj, if his government is successful, being able to muster enough ground forces to mount an attack on the Daesh stronghold around Sirte.

"Sirte is a coastal port, of course, and it's certainly the case that the Libyans will not be able to develop either naval or air assets in any reasonable period of time to support such an operation.

"Indeed, it is quite possible that from a military point of view they would seek assistance from outside.

"Now, prime minister Sarraj would have to balance that military imperative with the political issues that would arise if he were to request foreign assistance.

"There has been no such request, no discussion of such a request, but if it comes we will consider it and if we think that the UK should participate in such action we will come to the House and allow the House to express an opinion through a vote."

Mr Hammond made a statement to the House of Commons after visiting the troubled North African state in a show of support for prime minister-designate Sarraj's administration on Monday.

Tory chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee Crispin Blunt (Reigate) stressed the importance of carrying the House in any decision making on Libya.

He said: "A coherent British contribution will be easier with the consent and understanding of this House, it might need to include for example air strikes on Daesh targets, as well as the training mission he has alluded to and I would counsel him that he's dancing on pretty thin ground with this differentiation between a training mission into a combat zone and not seeking to carry this House with him."

Mr Hammond responded: "Any proposal to carry out air strikes in support of a counter-Daesh operation absolutely would trigger the convention that the Government would come to the House, consult the House and allow a vote by which the House could express its view on the proposed intervention."

He said he understood Mr Blunt's concern that the lines between what is a combat mission and what is a training mission "could be blurred", adding: "But we are very clear that we can make that distinction."

Mr Hammond said there was a "big difference" between training and advising troops and getting engaged in combat activities, adding: "The Government is extremely mindful of that distinction and of the obligations it's entered into in respect of consulting the House."

Responding to questions from backbenchers, Mr Hammond said he envisaged any training force to be between "tens and hundreds of trainers" rather than thousands.

Any mission is unlikely to focus on "hard" training of infantry troops initially but instead on military command structures through a civilian-led defence ministry - advice that could be given from Whitehall, he said.

The Foreign Secretary also indicated that police and ex-military contractors could carry out some or even all of the training rather than serving forces personnel.

"There's been a kind of assumption across the House that any training we give would have to be given by UK military personnel," Mr Hammond said.

"Some of the training that's needed will be police training...

"It's also quite possible that some of the training, perhaps all of the training, will be delivered by contractors, often ex-military personnel working for contractors rather than current serving military personnel."

Mr Hammond stressed that the only way of stabilising Libya is to co-opt the different militias which sprung up after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

He insisted that many of those armed groups are not extremists but instead local defence forces who were protecting the local population.

The Foreign Secretary said: "It's not possible to talk about raising a new Libyan armed forces that will then take on all these militias, that would be a completely unrealistic project.

"The only way forward is to co-opt militias into a nascent Libyan armed forces backed by a political system which is highly devolved and assures them of the autonomy and the fair shares of Libya's wealth for the communities that they are seeking to back."

Mr Hammond was asked by Labour's Daniel Zeichner to rule out any Libyan troops being trained in Cambridgeshire, following a series of sex attacks by trainees in his Cambridge constituency in 2014.

The group were part of a Libyan unit undergoing training at Bassingbourn Barracks as part of an agreement by the Government to help the country after the 2011 collapse of Gaddafi's regime.

Mr Hammond said he could not give any further information about where a training programme could be located as no request had yet been made by the Libyan government but insisted it would probably be a "very different operation in very different circumstances."

Mr Zeichner had asked: "You will recall the unhappy saga in 2014 when some 2,000 Libyan personnel were trained at the Bassingbourn barracks in Cambridgeshire, that ended very badly with a series of violent sexual assaults in my city of Cambridge when they were left out unsupervised.

"Can you reassure residents in Cambridge there will be no further training of Libyan personnel in Cambridgeshire?"

Mr Hammond replied: "This would be I think a very different operation in very different circumstances.

"There are no plans yet, there is no request, so I'm afraid I can't give the House any further information about what such a training programme might look like or where it would be conducted but I can give you the assurance that the lessons of what happened at Bassingbourn have been taken on board by the Ministry of Defence and will be properly factored in to any future plan."

SNP Stephen Gethins (North East Fife) argued Libya had been an "unmitigated disaster for this Government, where we even have a sitting president criticising a sitting UK Prime Minister".

Mr Hammond: "It's very easy to sit over there hurling stones, the world I'm afraid is not a neat and tidy place and we have to deal with the situations that present themselves."

Tory John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) echoed Mr Gethins's point and asked what lessons could be learned.

He said: "There can be no doubt that our intervention in Libya in 2011 as some in this House suggested has been an unmitigated disaster resulting in many thousands of casualties and more, the establishment of Daesh and basically a vicious civil war."

Mr Hammond replied: "I would very much take issue with him."

The situation in Libya in 2011 he said was very difficult and messy but there was a need to be positive about Libya regaining stability.

On Daesh, he said there were "probably up to about 3,000 Daesh fighters in Libya of whom a significant number would be foreign fighters".

Labour chairman of the Home Affairs Committee Keith Vaz (Leicester East) said he was "disappointed" more had not been offered to deal with the migration crisis with an 80% increase in crossings between Libya and Italy.

He said: "What we need is permission to enter Libyan coastal waters in order to stop the people traffickers."

Mr Hammond said Mr Vaz was approaching the issue in "exactly the wrong way".

He said: "I think we've got to be acutely sensitive to the concerns in Libya about foreigners....I think the truth is we've got to balance this very carefully and get a package which works for the Libyans as well as for the European agenda."

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