Malta has played an active role in protecting Libyan civilians since the start of the crisis, even as it projected a neutral stand and kept a low profile, The Times has learnt.

An official within the Office of the Prime Minister was some weeks ago appointed as a “liaison officer” to facilitate sending aid to Libya’s worst-hit cities. He is dealing with a mixed group of Libyans living in Malta and Maltese businessmen with Libyan interests, who are liaising with Libyan rebel forces.

Among other things, the government helped relay to the international military forces distress calls by the aid vessel sent from Malta when it came under attack from Libyan patrol boats in Misurata.

Preferring to remain unnamed, a member of the Libyan-Maltese group sending aid to places like Misurata said that, whenever they encountered a problem or got wind of a forthcoming attack on civilians, they informed the government’s envoy and “action was taken” promptly by the now Nato-led coalition forces.

So far three ships have arrived from Malta, enabling almost €2 million worth of food and medicines to reach rebel-held cities.

When the first ship was organised, the Maltese government intervened early one morning after the Libyan-Maltese group were caught “surreptitiously” loading aid onto a boat which had been leased by a foreign government to evacuate its nationals. (The name of the country cannot be published at this stage to protect its nationals who are still in Libya.)

The Libyan-Maltese group got permission from the boat’s owner but not from his client. When the country’s Maltese consul realised what was happening, he objected vehemently because he felt it could jeopardise the evacuation exercise.

However, top government people intervened and permission was granted for the aid to remain on the ship and head to Misurata.

“It was like having the Prime Minister with us at the discussion table,” the source from the Libyan-Maltese group said.

His account, and those that follow, have been confirmed by other sources who spoke to The Times.

The second boat to leave Malta encountered problems when it was trying to enter the Misurata port. It was under direct threat from patrol boats belonging to the Gaddafi regime. But after the Libyan-Maltese group contacted the Maltese authorities, the patrol boats disappeared within a few hours. The group later heard they had been attacked or at least “scared off” by coalition forces.

Meanwhile, the tanker which Libyan anti-Gaddafi protesters living in Malta had claimed was trying to take fuel from Malta to the Gaddafi regime left the island empty also following the intervention of local authorities.

The Turkish-owned Mubariz Ibrahimov tanker, the source said, arrived with oil and was planning to leave with petrol bound for Libya. However, the government ensured it would leave empty, getting inspectors to confirm this.

The liaison officer was also relayed information when forces loyal to Col Gaddafi were shelling Misurata, including its hospital, indiscriminately, and closing in on civilians. The Libyan-Maltese group, who was in touch with rebel forces, informed him of what was happening and, within a few hours, coalition forces attacked the tanks which were firing from just outside the city.

As reported last Sunday, the government also intervened to stop another Libya-bound Malta-flagged vessel laden with fuel bought by the Gaddafi regime – despite strong pressure from the Libyan government and Maltese businessmen close to the regime.

The MV Breeze, a Greek-managed tanker, was loaded with some 25,000 tons of gasoline and was headed to the Libyan port town of Zawiyah.

But after the Libyan-Maltese group of businessmen heard about this vessel they informed the OPM’s envoy.

“Less than three hours later the Americans boarded the tanker,” the source said.

Scores of badly injured civilians trying to reach Malta

The group is now liaising with the Maltese government to find a way of shipping over scores of badly injured Libyan civilians from cities which lack the necessary expertise or medical equipment to carry out certain medical interventions like amputations.

This has proven to be very difficult because it requires a special kind of vessel. “The ship needs to resist attacks from patrol boats. It needs to be hygienic enough to prevent the spread of infections. And it needs to have a crew brave enough to get the job done. They will be risking their lives and the owner will be risking his boat.”

With the help of the government the group also looked into chartering an aircraft. However, this also proved complicated once the no-fly zone was imposed.

The source said an arrangement may soon be found but preferred not to give details at this stage.

He added that the government had also intervened on a case-by-case basis to help evacuate Libyans who were under personal threat from the Gaddafi regime. The government also intervened to eliminate red tape being stressed upon by Customs officials for aid arriving from non-EU countries.

These reports are in stark contrast to the low profile kept by the government about its involvement in the crisis. It was only recently that the Prime Minister said Malta “fully” supported the UN resolution and the resulting military intervention days after other countries had thrown their full weight behind the operation.

Officially, the government has only been forthcoming about its decision not to send back two Mirage jet fighters whose pilots defected to Malta last month and the fact that it is allowing military airplanes to fly through its airspace and Flight Information Region.

The collaboration between Libyan and Maltese businessmen began when the GRTU (the Chamber of Small and Medium Enterprise) announced it was collecting aid in the form of medicines and baby food.

The response was “great” especially from international companies and organisations, the source said.

Some of the Maltese businesses involved in the aid efforts are suffering huge losses due to the crisis, with the Gaddafi regime confiscating stocks and shops. They are also having big problems with banks in Malta which are demanding immediate loan repayments and refusing to lend any more money to companies that are not able to guarantee liquidity.

The aid came from all over the world, including the University of Kansas, which raised more than $20,000 for the cause, and a small number of Maltese businessmen donated stocks or cash to help out. Meanwhile, the Maltese Health Ministry provided very hard-to-find medicines for free and a surgical team “on standby” in case injured people are brought to the island.

Libyan-Maltese businessmen bailed out anti-Gaddafi protesters

The source said the Libyan community in Malta involved in the aid efforts were grateful for the Prime Minister’s handling of the situation.

However, they were disappointed at the fact that anti-Gaddafi protesters were arrested because of a “brawl” outside the Libyan embassy when pro-Gaddafi supporters showed up and were given preferential treatment. They were charged and made to pay €5,000 each to be granted bail.

Since many of them could not afford this sum, the Libyan-Maltese businessmen intervened and put up the guarantees to ensure the men were not imprisoned.

The source said the team will now be sending aid to other cities “west of Tripoli” rather than Misurata.

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