British officials confirmed today that they had caught Libya trying to smuggle components of Scud missiles through London and said they would file a complaint through newly established diplomatic channels.

The components, discovered in boxes labeled "auto parts" at Gatwick Airport, were headed to Malta on a British Airways cargo jet, London's Sunday Times reported today. From there, they were to be forwarded to Libya.

The boxes, from a Chinese company called Hontex, which is not known to make auto parts, were found Nov. 24 after arriving from Taiwan. The British seized the November shipment, but there were indications that earlier shipments of missile parts and equipment from China had traveled through Britain undetected and arrived in Libya.

An executive at Hontex's parent company Namliong denied that his firm was involved in arms smuggling, the Associated Press reported.

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook confirmed the smuggling attempt today and said Britain would lodge a strong protest. Filing that protest will be the first official act of Britain's new ambassador to Libya, Richard Dalton, who arrived in Tripoli just four days ago in what was supposed to be a season of improved relations between the West and Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi.

For years, the West has considered Libya an outlaw regime and has imposed trade embargoes to penalize the country and prevent arms shipments. Relations began to thaw last year after Gadhafi assured the British government that he had abandoned terrorism and military aggression. In addition, Britain, the United States and Libya agreed on terms for trying two Libyans accused in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

Britain and Libya agreed to exchange ambassadors for the first time in 15 years. Britain also lifted its trade embargo, but a ban on arms remained.

The new Libyan ambassador to London, Saad Mujber, is to arrive this week and meet with Cook. With the discovery of the missile parts, their initial session will presumably cover more than diplomatic niceties.

But Cook did not suggest today that the British would back away from diplomatic relations. Rather, the new ambassador in Tripoli will deliver a "strong message," Cook said, that "they cannot evade those arms embargoes and missile control regimes by coming through Britain."