The government has ruled out the possibility of shrinking Malta's search and rescue (SAR) area despite accusations it is hindering the country's ability to handle the illegal immigration problem effectively.

Malta intends to stick to its SAR area, Foreign and Home Affairs ministers Tonio Borg and Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici told The Sunday Times, when asked whether a reduction in size was on the agenda.

Italy insisted that Malta give up its large search and rescue area, following the Pinar incident last week, where 140 immigrants were stranded at sea for three days as Italy and Malta argued over who should take them in.

But Dr Mifsud Bonnici said: "There is no discussion on the size of our search and rescue area. It would be wrong to argue that Malta should give up its search and rescue zone because of the current problem with illegal immigration."

Malta's SAR area is large - at some 250,000 square kilometres, it is roughly the size of Great Britain, spanning from Tunisia to Greece.

However, Dr Mifsud Bonnici said: "It is true we are a small country but the large SAR area could be considered to be part of the bonus we inherited from our Colonial past. It is an asset for our country and I don't think a country should simply give up its assets."

According to well-informed sources, Italy is applying pressure, both directly and indirectly, so that it can take over a portion of Malta's SAR area. Benefits range from funding for the Italian Guardia Costiera, to fishing zones, and even oil exploration.

In reality, giving up a portion of the area would cost Malta, since the country earns millions of euros a year from air traffic control charges on aircraft using the area, known as the flight information region (FIR). Malta had originally inherited a much larger FIR, including most of Libya, but ceded those parts later on.

Alternattiva Demokratika chairman Arnold Cassola said there was no reason why the size of the SAR area should be equal to the flight area. Malta had, after all, negotiated different areas for its territorial waters and fishing zones and the same principle should apply.

Prof. Cassola maintains that Malta should relinquish a large part of its search and rescue region until it is given sufficient financial and human resources to man it.

"Why should we risk taking on a bigger chunk of the immigration problem to get some money in return?" he queried.

The Cabinet had shot down a proposal made by then Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg in 2005 to shrink the SAR area by some 70 per cent.

Dr Borg said yesterday the government could choose either to reduce the SAR area or to stick to its stand that the nearest safe port receives immigrants and refuse to sign any international conventions to the contrary.

Malta is responsible for monitoring the search and rescue of anybody in distress in its SAR area but insists that anybody rescued should be taken to the nearest safe port.

In the wake of the Pinar dispute, Italy insisted that the country responsible for the SAR region should take in all immigrants rescued in the area, instead of the first port of call.

Though the government is insisting that the issue of oil exploration has nothing to do with the SAR region, sources insisted that there was an indirect link.

Government backbencher Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando was the first to raise the possibility that oil could be at the heart of Libya's seeming lack of interest to tackle illegal immigration.

He said reducing Malta's search and rescue area "would also give more muscle to the Libyans who are insisting that the Medina bank is theirs".

Libya's interest in oil exploration on the Medina Bank lies just within Malta's international boundary with Libya.

According to a former government official who spoke to The Times last week, even if the extent of the search and rescue area has absolutely no impact on a country's oil exploration rights, it is still an argument that can be brought before the International Court of Justice when it decides on boundary issues - and Italy also has an interest in oil exploration in the disputed areas.

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