Malta will allow military planes to fly through its airspace to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya but will not provide a military base, the Prime Minister announced yesterday.

“Our absolute priority was and will remain to preserve the safety of our country and its people,” Lawrence Gonzi said in a 15-minute evening press conference after an emergency Cabinet meeting.

International news organisations spent much of the day confidently earmarking Malta as a military base to help enforce the no-fly zone – a claim that was categorically denied by the government.

When asked, Dr Gonzi said there was no military threat from Libya “at this stage” and no requests for protection had been made to other countries, but if any threats were made, Malta would automatically be supported by the EU.

Dr Gonzi said he had spoken with Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi Mahmoudi who informed him that Libya had announced a ceasefire.

“I told him that for the ceasefire to have any credibility Libya must withdraw all its military forces from the streets from the east to the west of the country,” Dr Gonzi said during the press conference.

“This will be the first step towards reaching the aspirations of the Libyan people.”

But Mr Mahmoudi asked Dr Gonzi to “see the full picture” of what was going on in Libya. Dr Gonzi replied that the credibility of the Libyan government’s statements so far were “unsustainable” and reiterated that a ceasefire must be coupled with the removal of all army hardware from the streets.

According to international reports, Libya asked Malta and Turkey to “supervise” the ceasefire but Dr Gonzi made no mention of this and the government later denied it.

In the evening the matter arose again when Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim called on observers from the two countries as well as from China and Germany to enforce the ceasefire.

Regarding the UN Security Council resolution, Dr Gonzi said Malta would fulfil its obligations as a UN member state. The resolution “binds” Malta in line with its Constitution.

Malta, he said, would implement all sanctions and continue to be a humanitarian hub but would not be used as a military base to enforce the no-fly zone, even if requests were made. None had been made so far, he said, adding there were “alternatives” and other “solutions” for the enforcement to be carried out without Malta’s help.

Malta, he said, could support the aspirations of the Libyan people in other ways.

“Together with the Maltese people, I hope military enforcement and other measures will not even be needed because there will be a complete end to the fighting and the Libyan government will withdraw its arms against its people.”

He said Malta’s position was “identical” to that of the European Union.

In a press statement, Labour leader Joseph Muscat said his party also believed Malta should not be used as a military base and no military planes should be allowed to leave from Malta to attack another country.

At the same time, the country was bound by and should respect the UN’s resolution. Dr Muscat said Malta should continue to focus on its role as a centre of humanitarian assistance and, under the circumstances, national security should be given utmost priority in all decisions that were taken.

Meanwhile, sources with a military background who spoke to The Times said Malta was too vulnerable to participate militarily and must protect its self-interest due to its geographical position.

“Malta should take all action short of actual help,” one source said, admitting the inherent cynicism of his statement.

Although Malta could be criticised as cowardly, if military forces were allowed on the island Col Gaddafi would be likely to attack immediately, possibly by firing a missile as he had done to Lampedusa in 1986.

“So far, he has no reason to do so.”

Malta is not crucial to the inter­national military operation and should, therefore, “officially” lie low.

However, military forces should be allowed to “violate our airspace”.

“Discretion is the better part of valour. Although the disgusting atrocities on our doorstep may incense us, reality must kick in when we realise our lives are at stake.”

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