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Libya finally declares search and rescue area

The memorandum of understanding signed with Libya is the first official document that clearly marks the boundaries of the north African country's search and rescue (SAR) region, Armed Forces Colonel Emmanuel Mallia explained yesterday.

Malta and Libya signed the memorandum last week, which states that both countries should co-ordinate and support each other in search and rescue operations within their respective rescue regions.

Col. Mallia, who was one of the leading negotiators behind the agreement, said negotiations had been going on for months. They started in 2007 during a two-day meeting in Libya between Maltese and Libyan officials. In January last year, a Libyan delegation came to Malta for a one-week visit to draft the document.

In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said the memorandum was inspired by both countries to further promote the friendly relations between the two while improving the safety of life at sea.

The agreement includes provisions on collaboration between the two countries. The Maltese army, which was trained by the US Coast Guard, would offer training for their Libyan counterparts and help them set up a coherent SAR organisation, Col. Mallia said. The document will also help to reduce diplomatic red tape by requesting the assistance of the respective rescue co-ordination centres to authorise entry, while providing information on the distress situation in the region, he said.

Libya's approach to illegal migration has always been a hot topic, especially due to the lack of control over immigrants leaving its shores.

However, Col. Mallia said the memorandum did not specifically focus on illegal immigration.

"The memorandum is about search and rescue operations, which do not take into consideration the nationality of those in distress - everyone will be treated the same way," he said.

Since Libya has officially recognised its boundaries, hopefully this will facilitate certain SAR operations in the area, Col. Mallia said.

Malta and Libya have often been at loggerheads over the areas of responsibility when migrants' boats are in distress.

Last week, Foreign Minister Tonio Borg discussed the issue of illegal immigration in Rome and said that should Libya and Italy start joint patrols in Libyan waters, as planned, Malta was prepared to offer AFM personnel. To date all anti-immigration patrols have only been held in international waters.

Dr Borg had also said that talks were expected to be held in the coming days between Libyan ministers, Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici and himself.

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