Queen Elizabeth II arrived yesterday to a warm welcome from Maltese and foreigners alike.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh landed at Malta International Airport at 3 p.m., and the arrival ceremony was carried out at St George's Square, Valletta, rather than the airport, so that more people would be part of it.

The square was, indeed, surrounded by "fans", including British citizens, mostly elderly, and foreigners, waving Union Jacks. They were unhindered by the cold air momentarily warmed by a weak sun that managed to penetrate the clouds.

Onlookers occupied prime positions in balconies and windows to view the royal motorcade entering Valletta, escorted by mounted police.

The Queen, stately and smart in a pale yellow coat and trademark matching two-tone hat, emerged from her vehicle to cheering, applause, whistling and the clicking of cameras.

Minutes before her arrival, the square was totally, reverently and almost eerily silent as helicopters hovered above and the crowd waited in anticipation.

Queen Elizabeth, who is on a state visit until Saturday and is opening the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting tomorrow, was welcomed by President Eddie Fenech Adami and presented with a bouquet of flowers. She was accorded a national salute by a Guard of Honour and the British and Maltese national anthems were played by the Armed Forces of Malta band.

She then proceeded to inspect the Guard of Honour, after which she presented the members of her official suite, including the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Jack Straw, to the President.

Queen Elizabeth had an audience with Dr Fenech Adami at the Palace, where they exchanged gifts, before her short walkabout along Republic Street, which was lined with people, stretching their hands out in an attempt to shake hers.

Accompanied by her husband and Gozo Minister Giovanna Debono, among others, she walked from the Palace to the law courts - a block away - beaming as she walked past the public, who greeted her enthusiastically, clapping and snapping photographs. She was even presented with a small bouquet from a person in the crowd.

A Scottish and an English woman, who happened to be on holiday, said they came to see the Queen "by accident" - although this factor did not diminish their elation in any way. Neither did the fact that they had already seen the Queen in their own country reduce the fun of it all.

"She is bigger than a celebrity back home," they explained, not at all surprised by her welcome in Malta.

"It is the whole atmosphere of the event in general: helicopters, horses, nice cars..."

Even an elderly French couple on a sailing boat in Malta for a week decided to witness the event - an added bonus for tourists.

"Fortunately, the Queen was here. It is a coincidence, and a matter of curiosity, stemming maybe from the fact that we do not have a queen in France."

John Azzopardi from Valletta was ecstatic about the Queen's visit, saying it was an honour and a pleasure to have her here. "She is a great advert for our country and will make Malta hit the headlines around the world."

But, more importantly, "I am more English than the Queen, and I have a special liking for England and for her," he admitted, upset that a Union Jack that was flying off the Casino Maltese in Republic Street had been taken down just before her arrival.

Three elderly Maltese women from Sliema were still overcome by excitement when the Queen was driven away. Talking on top of each other, they said they had no words to describe the event and how they felt.

"We came specifically to see her; we left by bus at 1.30 p.m. and have been waiting, standing, since then. But we had an ideal spot and it was well worth it.

"You have to be here to experience the atmosphere. God save the Queen! Malta made us proud," said one of them.

"The Duke of Edinburgh even shook our hands and spoke to us," a member of the trio chipped in. "He asked if we all lived here," they said, trying to remember the exact words. "He wanted to know if he was shaking hands with Maltese."

A young man from Rabat timed some early Christmas shopping with the Queen's visit. "We left early to be able to see her," he said. "I am not particularly interested in the British monarchy, but this is a one-off occasion."

There were not too many youngsters in the crowd. But 12-year-old Ian Grech from San Gwann forced his way to the front of the barriers. "I wished to see her. I know that she is an important person," he said.

And as she got into her car to leave for Floriana, a man shouted out: "You are still our Queen!"

Queen Elizabeth's next engagement was a wreath-laying ceremony at the War Memorial, in Floriana in the presence of veterans and services organisations. By agreement with the Maltese authorities, 13 ex-services associations were involved in the event.

In the evening, she attended a state concert by the National Orchestra and a black-tie dinner at the Palace, in Valletta hosted by President Fenech Adami.

Today, she meets Labour Party leader Alfred Sant at San Anton Palace, followed by a tree-planting ceremony and a meeting with Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi.

At 11.15 a.m., she is to celebrate Children's Day with 2,500 children at the Cottonera Sports Complex in keeping with her aims to reach out to other generations.

At 11.40 a.m., the Queen is attending the opening ceremony of the Grand Harbour Marina, Vittoriosa, followed by a reception on board HMS Illustrious. She is being hosted to lunch at Auberge de Castille by the Prime Minister and is herself hosting a reception at Le Meridien Phoenicia Hotel in Floriana, in the evening.

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