David Cameron condemned the brutal suppression of anti-government protests in Libya as he became the first foreign leader to visit neighbouring Egypt since the overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak.
The Prime Minister described the violent crackdown by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime – which reportedly left more than 200 dead – as “completely appalling and unacceptable”.
“I call on them even at this late stage to stop. People’s aspirations for greater democracy, for greater freedom, for greater rights should be met with reform not repression,” he said.
With Libya’s second city Benghazi reportedly in the hands of the protesters, Foreign Secretary William Hague said that there were signs that Col Gaddafi may have fled the country for Venezuela.
“I have seen some suggestions that he is on his way there at the moment,” he said following talks with EU foreign ministers in Brussels.
Mr Cameron, meanwhile, was forced to defend the inclusion of defence industry representatives in the business delegation travelling with him, after the Foreign Office revoked a series of export licences to Libya and Bahrain amid fears the equipment could be used for internal repression.
In Cairo, Mr Cameron toured Tahrir Square – the epicentre of the demonstrations which brought down president Mubarak. Afterwards he described meeting the young pro-democracy activists there as “genuinely inspiring”.
The Prime Minister diverted the start of a planned tour of the Gulf region to hold talks with the new military leadership in Egypt in a bid to help ensure a “genuine transition” to civilian rule. His visit had originally been planned to promote trade and investment, and the travelling business delegation included representatives from firms involved in the defence industry – including BAE, Rolls Royce, Thales, Qinetiq and Babcock.
On Friday, however, the Foreign Office announced that it was revoking a series of export licences to Bahrain and Libya covering items such as tear gas, components for rifles and machine guns, ammunition and crowd control.
Nevertheless, Mr Cameron insisted that it was “very much in Britain’s interests” that the UK continued to promote defence relationships with countries in the region.