British special forces are poised to seize caches of mustard gas and other potential chemical weapons being stored by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.
American sources have disclosed that the SAS is likely to be called upon to secure up to 10 tons of mustard gas and sarin that is believed to be stockpiled at three separate locations.
Special forces are thought to have been in Libya for about 10 days and have already played a leading role in rescuing hundreds of oil workers.
On Tuesday, David Cameron continued to increase the pressure on Gaddafi by warning that Britain should negotiate with opposition groups. He said that, if the Libyan regime started “murdering” its people with aircraft, plans should be in place to “do something to stop that”.
It emerged that Typhoon fighter jets may be moved to an RAF base in Cyprus in the latest sign that military action could be necessary.
However, a growing coalition of foreign governments publicly opposed the use of military force. The American government also played down the prospect, despite sources disclosing earlier this week that warships and planes were being moved into position around Libya.
There is growing international concern over the stockpiles of chemical weapons that Gaddafi is thought to still retain, amid fears they could be used to attack protesters or be seized by terrorists.
British sources said they were yet to receive a specific US request for SAS involvement in any operation to secure the weapons sites, but officials said plans were being drawn up for “every eventuality”.
Sir John Major, the former prime minister, said that if Gaddafi used the chemical weapons it could trigger a military conflict.
Asked if the use of chemical weapons would make a difference to the military’s approach, Sir John said: “I think it would, and I think it should. I recall going out to visit the troops just before the first Gulf War. From the youngest to the most senior commander the one area that was of great concern was that Saddam Hussein would use chemical weapons.
“He didn’t. I think he understood that the world would descend upon him in the most terrible way if he did. And I very much hope that the same point will apply to Colonel Gaddafi in Libya.”
Mr Cameron used a press conference to speak out against the regime. “It’s right for us to plan and look at plans for a no-fly zone,” he said. “We should also be making contact, getting a greater understanding of the opposition forces that are now in Benghazi and in control of quite a lot of the country. I don’t think we should go beyond that for now.”
Saif Gaddafi, the dictator’s son and heir apparent, attacked Mr Cameron and accused him of “thinking greedily about oil”. He said the Prime Minister “wants to be a hero” and denied that Libyans were interested in regime change.
Yesterday, any Britons still in Libya were urged to make their way to Benghazi to board a Royal Navy destroyer on its way to the port.
European Union leaders are to meet for an extraordinary summit on March 11 to seek a response to the crisis, and to the turmoil in the wider Arab world.
Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, said last night that the Obama administration may seek the prosecution of Gaddafi for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.
The announcement follows claims last week by Gaddafi’s former justice minister that the Libyan leader had personally authorised the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which killed 270 people.
Elite troops and MI6 spies poised to help Libyan rebels.
Britain is to send teams of spies and diplomats into Libya to help oust Colonel Gaddafi, it emerged last night.
MI6 operatives backed by the SAS are to land in the east around the key rebel stronghold of Benghazi ‘within days’.
In addition, 600 soldiers of the Black Watch are on 24-hour standby to fly in and avert a humanitarian catastrophe as Libya erupted into a new wave of bloodshed.
Around 200 of the 600 UK troops are ready to deploy at South Cerney forward barracks near RAF Lyneham, Britain’s main military air transport base.
British diplomats and spies have been engaged in intensive efforts to speak to opposition forces, which are led by Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the rebel National Libyan Council.
Now ministers have approved a presence on the ground to gather information and boost the chances of the rebels.
The liaison teams will be primarily composed of envoys but will include some intelligence officers.
They will link up with Special Forces already in Libya to provide protection and give informal military advice to the Libyan opposition.
The teams are said to be there ‘primarily’ to gather information. But they will advise the rebels on how to secure a handover of power and set up a democratic government.
‘Once we get to the stage where we have a transition, part of what we’re looking at is supporting that transition,’ a source said.
Britain has also stepped up its military preparations, sending the frigate Westminster and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Argus to the area.
Britain still has three Chinook helicopters in Malta. And military planning for a No Fly Zone gathered pace yesterday when the North Atlantic Council tasked Nato military authorities with providing a range of plans yesterday.
Britain is likely to play a central role in any military action since the continuing evacuation and humanitarian aid flights are all being coordinated by a Joint Force Headquarters in Malta.
It is understood that the UK is more likely to supply air-to-air refuelling planes and AWACS spy-in-the-sky aircraft to any No Fly Zone operation.
These planes are already flying around Libya’s air space monitoring Colonel Gaddafi’s use of his air force and helicopter gunships.
Here is a video report about the British SAS, its history and rescue operations in hostile territory.