Malta braces itself to handle evacuees
‘There are two Libyas at the moment’
Malta is bracing itself to handle hundreds, possibly thousands, of evacuees from Libya as Muammar Gaddafi’s regime fights on to retain control of the west of the country.
The government has received requests for Malta to be used as a transit point. The requests come from the UK, Germany, Austria, Brazil, Thailand, Vietnam and, crucially, China, which is understood to have an army of some 35,000 workers in Libya.
The Chinese government is organising a small flotilla to help evacuate its nationals – 13,000 of whom are believed to be around Benghazi – partly through Malta.
Even the southern-African state of Zambia has asked for this sort of assistance.
In return, the government wants help in the transportation of some 183 Maltese citizens still stranded in Libya. In fact, the Prime Minister told Parliament last night this was the government’s number one priority, ahead of the protection of Malta’s substantial business interests, for the time being.
The bulk of Maltese citizens, about 100, are based in Tripoli. The situation in the city is chaotic, with some 13,000 people clogging the airport, struggling to get in or buy a ticket, however, people are trickling out of the country.
A total of 148 passengers, including 55 Maltese nationals, returned on the afternoon Air Malta flight, which landed late in the afternoon after facing delays. A second flight that was scheduled to leave at 8 p.m. did not depart for “logistical reasons”, according to a source. The flight is now expected to be operated this morning.
Similarly, a US-chartered Virtù Ferries catamaran that was meant to bring back about 600 people, including four or five Maltese, did not leave the port of Tripoli due to bad weather but is expected to leave sometime today.
However, the biggest challenge is the evacuation of the 83 Maltese citizens scattered around the rest of the country. About 19 are based in Benghazi and the government is hoping to have these board Chinese vessels.
The rest are in smaller groups spread all over the country, which is why the authorities are hoping to share the transportation facilities of other states.
A group of nine Maltese workers, who had been stranded in the desert at Waha, managed to drive to Tripoli and are now in a hotel.
Another group is in a place known as Area 103. The plan here, a government source said, was to fly a private jet to a nearby airfield and have them picked up.
The operation for many countries is a race against time amid predictions of a final showdown around the capital between the regime and anti-Gaddafi protesters.
“The situation is there are two Libyas at the moment,” a government source said. “Protestors appear to have control over the East of the country and seem to be moving closer to the capital but, at the same time, there is still an Administration.”
The Libyan Foreign Minister convened all ambassadors yesterday for a briefing as a swathe of government departments kept operations going. Even Maltese returning from Tripoli yesterday reported the situation in the capital as being “quiet” or even “normal”, aside from chaos at the airport, which intensified with rumours that a no-fly zone could be imposed.
In his statement to Parliament, Dr Gonzi reiterated Malta’s condemnation of the violence seen in the past few days and insisted that fundamental human rights and the legitimate aspirations of the people should be respected.
He thanked Opposition Leader Joseph Muscat for his constant support over this issue and referred to a meeting with business leaders in which the government agreed to consider the setting up of a task force that would help sustain companies with interests in Libya.
Meanwhile, the government denied persistent reports, especially on Al-Jazeera, over the past two days that Libyan warships had headed towards Malta or that the Italian military had deployed its own navy to form some sort of shield outside Maltese waters.
It also contradicted reports that a Libyan Arab Airlines ATR 42 plane, which was refused landing at Luqa Airport in the afternoon, carried Col Gaddafi’s daughter Aisha.
A spokesman said at no point was the government given any indication there was Ms Gaddafi or any other member of the family aboard the plane. Government sources said intelligence suggested this was “highly unlikely”.
The pilot of the unannounced LAA plane, which is understood to have been carrying some passengers, asked for permission to land but this was refused. There was a suggestion it could be running out of fuel but the pilot eventually accepted to return to Tripoli and landed there safely.
“Unlike with the Mirage planes, which because of their technical capabilities could land before we could do anything to stop them, this plane could not have managed such a landing... We were in a position to refuse this illegal landing and we did,” a government source said referring to the two Mirage FI fighter Jets, which landed in Malta on Monday.
The defecting pilots, two colonels who claimed to have escaped the country after being asked to bomb protester civilians in Benghazi, are being held in custody pending their asylum requests.
“As with any other asylum seekers, Malta will respect its legal obligations and have these two individuals in Malta until their requests have been processed. If granted protection (which they are entitled to) they can then stay in Malta and obtain a passport and the rest,” the source said.
A request is believed to have been made by the Libyan government to have back both the aircraft and the pilots but the government would not comment on this.