March 1, 2011 / 2:39 PM / 9 years ago

Malta refuses to return Libyan fighters-PM

VALLETTA, March 1 (Reuters) - Malta has refused to return two warplanes to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi that were flown to the Mediterranean island by defecting pilots last week, Maltese Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi said.

Gonzi told reporters late on Monday that Libya’s prime minister had personally requested the return of the two Mirage jet fighters.

Malta rejected the request and the fighters are still under armed guard at the airport. Their pilots have sought political asylum.

Gonzi said a Libyan Arab Airlines flight which was denied landing permission at Malta on Tuesday last week had been carrying pilots sent to take the Mirages back.

The prime minister told a news conference he had approved humanitarian missions to Libya from the island, which according to its constitution is neutral and non-aligned.

Some 12,000 oil workers have been evacuated in a week by air and ferries to Malta, which has a population of just 410,000. A rapid succession of flights is taking them on to their home countries.

More evacuated workers arrived from Libya on Tuesday with a German-chartered ship bringing some 500 workers of many nationalities.

The island had also been the departure point for rescue flights by the British Royal Air Force to pick up workers from the desert. The flights have been carried out without Libyan authorisation.

Gonzi said Malta was offering its service as a coordinating centre for international humanitarian aid to Libya. A number of Maltese NGOs have already started public collections of food and medicines.

Anti-Gaddafi protesters scrambled up the facade of the two-storey Libyan embassy in Valletta on Tuesday and raised the pre-Gaddafi Libyan flag.

Libyan Ambassador Saadun Suayeh, who had earlier met the protesters, said he would accept any flag which represented the Libyan people. He said he intended to stay in his post but would meet Foreign Minister Tonio Borg.

In media comments over the past two days, the ambassador has made a distinction between the Libyan people and the Libyan government and said the embassy represented all of Libya.

However he also gave the Libyan official version of what was going on in his country.

Reporting by Chris Scicluna, editing by Paul Taylor

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