By Robert Winnett, and Duncan Gardham 9:00PM BST 29 Mar 2011
Admiral James Stavridis, Nato’s Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, said that American intelligence had picked up “flickers” of terrorist activity among the rebel groups. Senior British government figures described the comment as “very alarming”.
The admission came as the American, Qatari and British Governments indicated that they were considering arming rebel groups, who yesterday suffered a series of setbacks in their advance along the Libyan coast towards Tripoli.
The plan is likely to spark further splits in the international coalition, with Nato and Italian sources indicating the move would require another United Nations resolution.
On Tuesday more than 40 ministers from around the world met at a conference in London to discuss the situation in Libya.
They agreed to establish formal links with opposition groups in the rebel-stronghold of Benghazi with several countries sending official envoys to the area. Libyan opposition leaders yesterday also travelled to Britain for talks with David Cameron and Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State.
Britain and America signalled they would allow Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to seek exile – rather than face a war crimes trial – if he agrees to step aside immediately.
However, the emerging plan being discussed for the political future of Libya was undermined by the growing military doubts over the make-up of the rebel groups.
“We are examining very closely the content, composition, the personalities, who are the leaders of these opposition forces,” Admiral Stavridis said in testimony yesterday to the US Senate.
While the opposition’s leadership appeared to be “responsible men and women” fighting the Gaddafi regime, Admiral Stavridis said, “we have seen flickers in the intelligence of potential al Qaeda, Hizbollah, we’ve seen different things.”
“But at this point I don’t have detail sufficient to say there is a significant al-Qaeda presence or any other terrorist presence,” he added.
The remarks are likely to be seized on by Col Gaddafi who has repeatedly claimed that the uprising is being driven by terrorists.
Last night a series of powerful explosions rocked Tripoli and state television said several targets in the Libyan capital had come under attack from “crusader aggressors”. Tripoli residents said the latest explosions took place in the east of the capital but their exact location was not clear. Aircraft were heard above Tripoli earlier in the day.
Rebel forces retreated from attacks on Sirte after meeting heavy resistance in the town, Col Gaddafi’s birthplace. The front line was reported to be near again to Bin Jawad, a town recaptured by rebels in recent days. There were also unconfirmed reports last night that the rebels were in trouble further back on the road heading east, around the oil town of Ras Lanuf.
Last night, Baroness Warsi, the Muslim cabinet minister and co-chairman of the Conservatives, said the comments about the composition of the rebel force were “very concerning”.
“That is the first I’m hearing of the news, of course it is very concerning,” she said. “What we’ve heard today is their [the Libyan Interim National Council’s] version of a new Libya. I’m confident it is not a post-Gaddafi Libya that includes al-Qaeda.”
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, sought to play down the concerns, welcoming a document from opposition leaders backing the creation of a free democracy in Libya. He said that there was a greater risk of terrorist threats if Britain and other countries did not intervene.
But, Mr Hague said: “We can never be complacent about the way events like this could turn out … Of course, there is a danger, if things go wrong in the region on a sustained basis, there could be opportunities for terrorism.”
Mr Cameron accused the Gaddafi regime of launching “murderous attacks” on people in Misurata, Libya’s third largest city.
Regime tanks surrounded the city and fired on apartment blocks in the city which was described as being “under siege”. Snipers were also said to have taken rooftop positions to pick off rebel fighters.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister said: “As this broad range of countries gathers here today in London, there are people suffering terribly under Gaddafi’s rule. Our message to them is this: there are better days ahead for Libya.”
It was announced that Nato is in the process of assuming command of the military operation and will be in full control by tomorrow. Several other countries also pledged to support the action.
Humanitarian groups will be encouraged to offer assistance to Libyans in safe areas.