LONDON, England — The mantra that we need to train the forces of friendly governments and, for that matter, rebel groups, may have become a staple of every 21st century Western intervention in the Middle East, but sometimes things just go wrong. Really wrong.
A new generation of the Libyan army was supposed to be trained in the West as part of international efforts to rebuild the country after the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi. Hand-picked recruits were invited to rural England for basic infantry and junior command training.
On Tuesday, however, the British Ministry of Defense announced that all 300 trainees would be sent home early after a string of sexual assaults were perpetrated against the residents of Cambridgeshire, culminating in the alleged gang rape of a young man.
Britain had pledged to train 2,000 Libyan recruits in total, but that commitment is now under review.
Libyan Army cadets stationed at Bassingbourn barracks are alleged to have left the military camp on raids into the nearby university town of Cambridge, where a spate of sexual attacks were reported on the cobbled streets around the ancient college buildings.
Two of the recruits have admitted to two sexual assaults and a bicycle theft in Market Square right at the center of the old town. They also pleaded guilty to threatening a police office. Another cadet, aged 18, has been charged with three sexual assaults.
In total, police have investigated reports of 11 sexual assaults in central Cambridge within nine days. The most serious of those took place on Christ’s Piece, which is between Jesus and Emmanuel colleges, on Sunday October 26. A man in his early 20s allegedly was approached by two Libyan soldiers who subjected him to a serious sexual assault. Moktar Ali Saad Mahmoud, 33, and Ibrahim Abogutila, 22, were charged with rape on Monday.
The allegations of sexual assault came after a third of the recruits had already withdrawn from the training program. It has been reported that up to 20 of the cadets have applied for asylum, although the Ministry of Defense and Home Office refuse to discuss those cases.
Andrew Lansley, South Cambridgeshire’s Conservative MP, said he had initially supported the idea of welcoming the Libyans into the area but the behavior of those stationed at Bassingbourn had forced him to write to the MoD and call for an end to the program.
"It is with regret that I must now say that it has not worked as we had hoped. It is clear that the stipulation that there was to be no unauthorized exit from the base has not been adhered to, and the consequences have been unacceptable. The purpose has not met its objectives, nor have MoD lived up to the promises made to us,” he told the Cambridge Evening News. "As I have today expressed to MoD, I now see no alternative but to terminate the contract and repatriate the trainees currently on the base. As this stands, no further groups of trainees could be brought here from Libya."
Last year, Britain, the United States and European members of the G8 signed up to train more than 7,000 Libyan troops who would form the heart of a new army that would allow the state to regain stability in the aftermath of a bloody civil war.
Those selected to take part in the first group had been specially selected and forced to pass immigration, medical and security checks.
In a statement, the MoD admitted that it had been forced to cancel the rest of the training program. “The recruits will be returning to Libya in the coming days,” a spokesman said. "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 U.K. is the best way forward."