France, Britain and Italy, whose warplanes are bombing Moammar Gadhafi’s military in western Libya, have also put “boots on the ground” in the rebel-held east. But these European soldiers tread lightly.
“If you see them please ask them to come and have a cup of tea with me,” joked Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani, the rebels’ military spokesman, when asked for information about what the advisors were up to.
Bani declined to let journalists interview the advisors — about 20 Britons, and ten each from Italy and France — while defence and foreign ministries in London, Paris and Rome refused requests to let AFP report on their work.
The advisors are rumoured to be holed up in a building on the edge of Benghazi, a port city which has become the rebels’ de facto capital in the wake of the anti-Gadhafi uprising that began in mid-February. There they are working with senior rebel commanders to try and turn a ragtag, poorly armed and badly trained force into a fighting machine that, with the backing of NATO firepower in the air, can defeat the forces loyal to Gadhafi.
That process is akin to “trying to turn chaos into order,” said a European military official here who said the advisors were helping set up a command structure and had no plans to take part in training fighters.
There are two main reasons for the glaring imbalance between the massive presence in the air above Libya — NATO says it has flown more than 5,000 sorties to enforce a UN-mandated no-fly zone and to strike Gadhafi military targets — and the tiny presence on the ground.
Photos or TV footage of European soldiers working with Libyan rebels would likely be used by Gadhafi’s propaganda machine as evidence the uprising was orchestrated by Western powers bent on seizing control of the country’s oil.
There is also concern about “mission creep.”
Critics of the Libya campaign point out that the United States’ disastrous involvement in Vietnam began with a handful of military advisors but soon developed into a protracted full-scale land war.
They fear that what began as an air campaign to protect civilians could, if Gadhafi is not soon killed by an airstrike or decides to step down, develop into a lengthy campaign in which Western troops end up on the ground in ever greater numbers to support the rebels.
The governments of the three countries who currently have advisors here insist they will not let that happen, and to avoid fuelling criticism are keeping their men well out of sight.
Volunteer fighters training at military camps in Benghazi said they had not seen them, as did fighters at the front line about 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of here, just beyond the city of Ajdabiya.
In Misrata, the rebels’ only major stronghold in the west which has been besieged for the past two months by Gadhafi’s troops, rebel sources say there are at least two French and one British military advisors at work.
Two journalists from AFP working in the city were recently locked in a house by a group of rebel fighters because, according to one of the fighters, “the French are walking around in the neighbouring streets.”
An AFP journalist also heard a man talking in English with a French accent over the radio to a rebel fighter there.
The French government has repeatedly denied it has agents on the ground in Libya who are used to provide information on potential targets for NATO air strikes.
Many people in Misrata, where hundreds have been killed in street battles and shelling, say that a handful of military advisors are not enough and call for foreign troops on the ground to help break the siege. But in Benghazi, which in March was saved from being recaptured by Gadhafi forces by the launch of the Western air strikes, rebels say they are opposed to the idea.
“We do not require troops on the ground,” said Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, the vice chairman of the National Transitional Council. “If we can get the necessary weapons we can create a proper plan and put an end to this once and for all.”
The European powers with secretive military advisors in Benghazi are also hoping that the rebels will very soon be able to do just that. But they have also so far refused to supply any weapons to help them finish their task.