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Libyan troops sent home after sexual assault allegations
Several hundred Libyan army cadets will be sent home from a Cambridgeshire barracks within days - ending a scheme intended to train 2,000 troops to bring security to the north African state - after sexual offences were committed in the area.
Two Libyan cadets who had left Bassingbourn barracks pleaded guilty last week to sexual assault and a third was charged with the same offence.
Two others, Moktar Ali Saad Mahmoud, 33, and Ibrahim Abogutila, 22, were charged with raping a man in a Cambridge park on 26 October and were remanded in custody on Tuesday.
So serious is the disorder that police are conducting frequent patrols around the Bassingbourn base as residents of the nearby village fear more "escapes" and attacks. The base has been reinforced with further troops from 2 Scots, the Royal Highland Fusiliers, who were drafted in "to bolster security and reassure the local population" according to the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
The Libyan training scheme has been beset with problems since it began in June and the MoD has admitted that 90 recruits - almost a third of the 325 who were carefully selected to take part in the programme - have withdrawn.
About 20 recruits are reported to have claimed asylum in the UK, although the Home Office and the MoD refused to either confirm or deny this.
The former Conservative health secretary Andrew Lansley, who is MP for the area, said the security problems represented a serious failure by the MoD, which must be held accountable.
"A lot of constituents and I are very unhappy that a decision was made that trainees could go off the base unescorted," said Lansley. "When did it happen and who made those decisions? I feel very disappointed. The consequences are serious and the MoD has to account for that."
Labour said the scheme had collapsed in "scandal and disarray". Local residents have demanded to know why the MoD did not act earlier to stop the Libyans leaving the barracks when problems had already been reported. One family told how they had to call out the army after finding one Libyan in their driveway and another hiding under their car three days before the alleged attacks in Cambridge.
The MoD said the majority of recruits had been making good progress but confirmed the repatriation of the Libyan troops would take place following the disciplinary problems.
Lansley said he understood one in 10 of the recruits "were not accepting the discipline and weren't accepting what they were asked to do and were not becoming part of a military force".
Last week, the Libyan cadets Ibrahim Naji el-Maarfi, 20, and Mohammed Abdalsalam, 27, appeared before Cambridge magistrates court where they admitted two counts of sexual assault.
El-Maarfi faces two counts of sexual assault and one count of exposure. Abdalsalam faces charges including sexual assault. Khaled el-Azibi, 18, has also been charged with three counts of sexual assault but has yet to enter a plea.
"It felt like it was going wrong a few weeks ago," said Lansley. "They [the MoD] were probably aware that some trainees were not adhering to discipline from an early stage and I wonder why [they had] not at a much earlier stage recognised that and taken a proportion of the trainees out and repatriated them much earlier."
Peter Robinson, the chairman of Bassingbourn parish council, said: "The main problem has been escapees and the fear that has caused. I have had ladies tell me they don't want to walk their dogs any more. There have been people who have come out of their house and have discovered Libyans hiding under their car, and it doesn't give someone the feeling of safety and, following the allegations of what happened in Cambridge, it has made fears all the worse." He said he spoke for many local residents when he reacted "with joy" to the news the troops were leaving.
Colonel Ali el-Karom, the military attache at the Libyan embassy in London, apologised for the bad behaviour and said Libya was "very disappointed that a few people have made stupid choices". He said tensions between recruits who supported different factions in Libya were behind some of the problems. "When this particular conflict has died down, we will still need the training from the MoD in order to make our country strong and secure," he said. "I hope that what has happened at Bassingbourn will not lead to a loss of trust between us and the MoD and that our two countries will continue to work together."
The MoD confirmed that some recruits had left over disciplinary and behavioural issues, while others returned home for personal and medical reasons.
A spokesman insisted the group was carefully chosen after undergoing immigration, security and medical checks and that the majority responded positively. "As part of our ongoing support for the Libyan government we will review how best to train Libyan security forces - including whether training further tranches of recruits in the UK is the best way forward," he said. "The majority of recruits have responded positively to training, despite ongoing political uncertainty in Libya, but there have been disciplinary issues.
"Training was initially expected to last until the end of November but we have agreed with the Libyan government that it is best for all involved to bring forward the training completion date. The recruits will be returning to Libya in the coming days."
Ian Lucas, the shadow defence minister, said: "Having been significantly delayed in the first instance, the UK-based training programme has now collapsed in disarray and scandal and there are no plans to continue it elsewhere.
"The defence secretary needs to explain how this has gone so badly wrong and urgently clarify the government's strategy for helping to build a safe and stable Libya, including whether or not training Libyan soldiers is part of it.
[Source: By Diane Taylor and Robert Booth, The Guardian, London, 04Nov14]
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