UK citizens leaving Libya on ship

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionAlistair Burt says a "relatively small" number of UK nationals are still in Tripoli

Up to nine Britons who have remained in Libya's capital, Tripoli, have decided to leave on a ship to Malta, Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt has said.

It comes as rebel forces engage forces loyal to Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi in gun battles in the city.

However, reports suggested the Maltese ship had been unable to dock in Tripoli after coming under fire amid fighting between forces and rebels.

Neither the Foreign Office nor Nato were able to confirm the reports.

The vessel had been due to leave Tripoli at 09:00 local time on Sunday. However, AFP news agency reported Polish officials as saying it had been forced to retreat to sea after being hit by gunfire.

In February, the government evacuated hundreds of UK citizens on specially chartered flights and HMS Cumberland.

The British embassy in Tripoli has been empty since staff were evacuated earlier in the year.

Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt told the BBC eight or nine British nationals had been expected to board the Maltese ship.

'Increasing pressure'

He added: "Our advice to people in Tripoli has been consistent over a lengthy period of time, obviously to take all available opportunities to leave.

"Most of those who are still there have had reasons to stay embedded, many will have had relatives or relations, and have been content to stay in Tripoli."

Mr Burt said it was clear rebel forces were building the pressure on the capital.

"Our understanding has always been that there would not be an uprising in the capital until people were fairly sure on the ground that there would be some support available from those outside.

"The forces of the National Transitional Council clearly are much closer to Tripoli than they have ever been. They have turned their attention there in an effort to free the Libyan people from the attacks that have been made upon them by the Gaddafi regime over so many months."

Mr Burt said while there was no question of sending troops to Tripoli, Britain was still playing a crucial role in enforcing the UN resolution as part of the international coalition.

He added attempts by United Nations envoys to open negotiations with Col Gaddafi had not been taken up.

British forces have been involved in a Nato mission to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians using "all necessary measures" short of a ground invasion since March.

The Ministry of Defence said Tornado aircraft had hit targets in and around Tripoli in the last 24 hours.

'Heavy responsibility'

They included a communications facility used by the intelligence organisations, which was hit by five precision-guided Paveway bombs.

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said that with Col Gaddafi's position apparently weakened, post-conflict planning arrangements by the international coalition and National Transitional Council must be fully prepared.

"Tragically, in many circumstances, after a conflict, a country slips back into conflict, unless the right steps are taken at an early stage," he said.

Gunfire has been heard to the east, west and south of Tripoli's centre since the uprising reached the city on Saturday. Four loud explosions were also heard.

A Libyan government official said 376 people had been killed and more than 1,000 wounded.

Former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell said he did not think the end of the conflict was necessarily in sight.

He said: "This is the dissidents within Tripoli having seen recent successes... are emboldened and more confident of making a demonstration of that dissidence.

"There's a lot of support for Col Gaddafi in Tripoli and my sense is that he won't go without a fight."