THEY flew in at night by helicopter: six SAS soldiers and two diplomats, armed and apparently carrying explosives and false passports, with a mission to find Libya’s revolutionary leaders and establish a way to help the pro-democracy movement.

The team could have come in with HMS Cumberland, a British frigate that was openly docked in Benghazi port on Sunday, and caught a taxi a couple of miles to the court building where the revolutionary council’s representatives meet the press and conduct their daily business.

That way, they might have avoided being captured.

The rebel council, which declared itself this weekend the sole legitimate authority in the country, expressed surprise and annoyance at the British delegation’s “James Bond” antics.

“If this is an official delegation why did they come with a helicopter? Why didn’t they [inform the revolutionary council] that ‘we are coming, we’d like to land at Benina airport’, or come through Egypt like all the journalists have done,” Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the revolutionary leadership, asked.

“There are rules to these things. Now they landed on Libyan soil and they got captured. We did not know whether they were for or against us.”

The council, led by the former justice minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, is receiving delegations sent by the Arab world. The EU was sending its own fact-finding mission on Sunday. Britain, however, chose to land its men on Friday at Soluch, several kilometres from Benghazi and the site of a World War II US bomber base.

Senior rebel leaders had given the Foreign and Commonwealth Office permission to send in the small team to make contact before a larger, more prominent British delegation was dispatched, a diplomatic source said.

However the SAS “chanced across” a group of rebels who did not like the look of them and put them under “house arrest”. Their movement was controlled and all forms of communication were confiscated, the source said.

The BBC reported that the Britons had been approaching an agricultural compound when the mission went wrong. They were confronted by Libyan guards who searched the soldiers’ bags and found weapons, ammunition, explosives, maps and passports for at least four different nationalities.

The SAS soldiers and the diplomats were held 9km from Benina airport, which serves Benghazi. Their unexpected and embarrassing detention led to a volley of urgent phone calls between London and senior rebel leaders to try to resolve the matter.

Adding to the humiliation, Libyan state television broadcast an intercepted recording of Richard Northern, Britain’s Ambassador to Tripoli, talking to one opposition member. Mr Northern, who is in Britain because of the unrest, stutteringly explains that the team was merely trying to find a hotel and there had been a misunderstanding.

The rebel leader tells the ambassador that the SAS unit had made a “big mistake” by swooping in by helicopter. “Oh, did they?” Mr Northern is heard saying. “I didn’t know how they were coming.”

Word finally filtered down the rebel chain of command, however, and the British team, all in good health after being well treated, were allowed to leave. The men boarded HMS Cumberland, which was in port to pick up remaining civilians wanting to leave Libya, and were last night (Sunday) heading for Malta.

Once on the island, the British team will be able to convey in greater detail what went wrong. “We want to understand the lessons that can be learnt,” the source said.