The foreign ministers of Malta, Italy and Libya will meet today to discuss the withdrawal of visas by the North African country as half the passengers booked on yesterday's Air Malta flight to Tripoli did not board the plane.

An Air Malta spokesman said 33 of the 71 passengers booked to fly to Tripoli either cancelled their booking, tried to rebook or failed to turn up as the visa problem entered its third day.

A European country intervened as a mediator between the Schengen zone and Libya, a Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman said yesterday, stopping short of mentioning the name.

On Sunday evening, Libya decided to refuse entry to people from Schengen countries in reaction to Switzerland's decision to blacklist 180 Libyans, including Muammar Gaddafi and members of his family.

This means no Schengen country can issue full Schengen visas to such persons.

Foreign Affairs Minister Tonio Borg is expected to travel to Rome this morning to meet his Italian and Libyan counterparts, Franco Frattini and Mousa Kousa in an attempt to iron out the problem.

The issue will also be on the agenda of the monthly EU Foreign Affairs Ministers' meeting, scheduled for Monday. Dr Borg requested the issue to be put on the agenda in a letter to European Commissioner vice-president Catherine Ashton.

Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici yesterday criticised Switzerland's decision to blacklist the 180 Libyans and its request to be consulted on visa applications made by Libyans to other Schengen states.

"In our view, such a step runs counter to the spirit of the Schengen acquis. Refusing entry is an instrument to protect our citizens; to protect our national security and for no other purpose," Dr Mifsud Bonnici wrote to Swiss Home Affairs Minister Didier Burkhalter.

He asked Spanish Home Affairs Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, for an urgent debate within the EU Council of Home Affairs Ministers. Spain currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

He said granting visas under Schengen rules "should not be in any way abused as an instrument of political retaliation".

The Foreign Affairs Ministry reiterated its call for Maltese travellers to consult the Libyan Embassy in Malta before leaving for Tripoli. Libya was refusing to issue visas to Schengen citizens except those in possession of a valid residence permit.

Nine Maltese have been denied entry into Libya since Sunday evening, with one passenger telling The Times he waited for some 20 hours at the departure lounge of Tripoli's airport before returning to Malta on Monday. Four Maltese passengers were denied entry on Sunday, another four on Monday and one yesterday.

The matter is worrying industry representatives who fear the repercussions the decision could have on businesses. Describing it as "disproportionate and unfair" on local businessmen, the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry pointed out that Maltese entrepreneurs were innocent parties in this matter.

"We cannot risk not being able to do business efficiently," chamber general director Kevin Borg said.

He said the chamber had been in contact with the authorities to ensure Libya's decision would not have "an overtly negative effect" on its members.

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