UK officials deny troops will go to Libya, refusing to comment on current SAS operations. Yet a shipload of commandos, intelligence operators and landing craft specialists is quietly positioned within striking distance of the war-torn North African state.
The existence of the 150-strong amphibious Special Purpose Task Group (SPTG) was revealed on Thursday by the IHS Jane’s defense website, which claims to have seen a Royal Marines briefing document.
While it is normal for Royal Navy vessels to have a ‘ship’s company’ of commandos aboard, the SPTG is an unusual case.
It also has soldiers from the 17 Port and Maritime Regiment – an army unit which contains landing craft specialists – and marines from the shadowy 30 Commando military intelligence unit which specializes in “information exploitation.”
UK troops under Italian command in a collapsing state where both are hated. Libya would be like Somalia + Afghanistan + Rorke’s Drift.
— Glenton (@joejglenton) April 11, 2016
The SPTG departed Southampton’s Marchwood military port in January aboard the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) landing vessel Mounts Bay for what the briefing document terms “contingency operations in the Mediterranean.”
On Tuesday the Mounts Bay was reported to be in Gibraltar for routine maintenance, so it did not have to leave its area of operations to return to the UK.
Between setting sail and docking in in Gibraltar, the MOD claims the ship was carrying out anti-trafficking operations in the Aegean by “identifying smugglers taking migrants to Greece and passing the information to the Turkish coastguard so they can intercept these boats.”
In earlier reports, the presence aboard the RFA Mounts Bay – or even existence – of the SPTG do not appear have not been mentioned. The unit was only added to the Royal Navy’s standing deployment Wikipedia page on Thursday.
However, the special purpose of the Special Purpose Task Group is not entirely clear given the range of warfighting equipment on-board.
Before maintenance at Gibraltar’s Gibdock, a local newspaper reported that up to 42 land vehicles were unloaded from the ship which is apparently charged with seaborne anti-people-smuggling operations.
The images of the unloading also appear to show a military crane and an Oshkosh bulk fuel transporter being lifted from the Mounts Bay onto a ferry.
The deployment has been reported during a row between MPs about what the UK’s plans for Libya are.
It had been thought that the arrival in Tripoli in March of the new UN-brokered unity government could see UK troops deployed as part of a 6,000-strong Italian led brigade – a move blasted by both politicians and high-ranking military veterans of 2011 Libyan war.
On Thursday the Libyan united government publicly turned down UK troops out of fear that Western backing would make them appear to be foreign puppets and that outside forces would serve to unite warring militias.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been asked for comment.
On Thursday, the outspoken chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Crispin Blunt, argued that government should come clean on the presence of UK Special Forces in Libya and attacked Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond for being “less than candid” about UK military activity there.
While the government refuses to comment on Special Forces operations as matter of policy, it was reported by the Guardian on 25 March that leaked conversations between King Abdullah of Jordan and senior US Republicans confirmed the SAS’s presence in Libya since at least January 2016.