Libya’s top military officials had glowing praise for Malta on a visit yesterday, with the country's top general telling Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi that Malta’s contribution to the revolution was “forever engraved in Libya’s heart”.

Led by the Commander of the Libyan National Army, General Yousef El Mangoush, the delegation included the two pilots who defected to Malta last February, shortly after the beginning of the Libyan revolution.

The heads of Libya’s Air Force, Navy and Special Forces were also part of the delegation.

Malta had steadfastly refused to return the pilots and two Mirage fighter jets to Muammar Gaddafi, in what Dr Gonzilast week described as adecision laden with “moral courage”.

The jets, which have been in Malta’s possession ever since, are due to be returned to Libya in mid- to late February. Both planes have been grounded since the pilots’ defection and require technical maintenance before being flown back to Libya.

General El Mangoush spoke of Malta’s decision with appreciation, thanking the country for its “heroism” in opting to ground the planes despite the lack of international sanctions at the time.

Yesterday’s courtesy visit came at a trying time for both sides, albeit for altogether different reasons. With debate on a no-confidence vote hours away, Dr Gonzi could have been forgiven for having his mind elsewhere.

Libya’s armed forces, meanwhile, continue to face difficulties in reining in the various militia groups which continue to operate across Libya. Earlier this month, Libya’s interim Prime Minister Abdurrahim al-Keib warned Libya risked sliding into civil war unless rival militias were stamped out.

Welcoming his distinguished guests, Dr Gonzi described the visit as another step in the burgeoning relationship between the Libyan and Maltese.

“Malta will continue to be Libya’s voice in calls to unfreeze Libyan assets and return them to their rightful owners, the Libyan people,” Dr Gonzi said.

The two Mirage jets were “a powerful symbol of Malta standing by Libya hand-in-hand from the very outset of the war”.

He expressed hope that cooperation would blossom between the two nations in areas of common interest, with irregular migration receiving a special mention.

Irregular migration also featured on General El Mangoush’s wishlist for further cooperation, and he mentioned issues concerning air space and the two nations’ territorial seas as other potential areas of discussion.

Dr Gonzi took the opportunity to expound on a recent visit paid to Malta by Libyan Employment Minister Mustafa Rujibani. The visit yielded an agreement to send a number of Libyan students to Malta for English language, management and vocational training.

Having shook hands, exchanged greetings and posed for the Maltese and Libyan press cameras, Dr Gonzi and the Libyan armed forces delegation visited the Mediterranean Aviation Company’s hangars in Luqa for a brief inspection of the two fighter jets.