UK Politics

Libya rescue: What went wrong with UK response?

Woman meets evacuated man at Gatwick
Image caption Evacuated Britons are now being reunited with loved ones

As Turks boarded boats and Bulgarians were flown home, more than 500 British citizens stranded in Libya on Wednesday were left asking where their government's rescue operation was.

Part of its evacuation plan was broken down at Gatwick, a charter flight that eventually took off 10 hours late.

Ministers know that the stalled evacuation effort has been badly handled and David Cameron's unqualified apology is evidence of that.

The prime minister was still on the telephone to his foreign and defence secretaries at 0300GMT trying to get the rescue effort off the ground.

There will now be a review of the government's aircraft evacuation procedures to establish, as Foreign Secretary William Hague has said, whether the delays had been a "coincidental series of unavoidable setbacks or a systematic flaw".

Chaotic situation

What seems to have happened is this:

As Mr Cameron said in his interview with my colleague James Landale earlier, the government's preference is to rely on scheduled flights for as long as possible to lift British citizens out of unstable countries.

It happened in the case of Egypt. If the government charters its own flights too soon the scheduled flights would collapse, because people would cancel their bookings.

But on Tuesday BA and BMI cancelled all their flights to Tripoli and there have not been any since.

So why didn't the Foreign Office simply start flying in its own chartered planes then?

Foreign Office sources suggest several reasons.

Clearly, the chaotic situation on the ground in Libya has made it extremely difficult to assess the appropriate response - and that slowed the UK government down.

Exasperating

There was then the difficulty of getting landing permission for flights that the Foreign Office planned to send in.

With the bureaucracy in Tripoli barely functioning, civil servants could not get the green light from Libya for flights to start - but that did not stop other countries from flying in anyway.

Then there was the problem of securing the planes.

The government has a plan for commissioning charter flights through a brokerage company.

Three planes had been ordered by Wednesday morning but two of the companies then failed to provide them due to concerns about security, insurance and the absence of official landing permission.

These are issues the review is certain to examine.

Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander, for Labour, has also asked why military aircraft were not pressed into action sooner.

The Boeing 757 that was available had a mechanical malfunction and sat on the tarmac at Gatwick before finally taking off at 10pm on Wednesday evening.

By then, several British people had secured seats on the BP charter flight that arrived in Gatwick earlier on Thursday.

It was an exasperating and frustrating day for ministers and their officials.

Exasperating too for the British people stranded in Libya watching other nationalities being taken to safety.

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