A group of 26 Maltese medics and officials rescued 620 Libyan refugees stranded in Tunisia and took them back home in a threeday mission which Benghazi chief Mahmoud Jibril said Libya “would never forget”.

Among the refugees, 287 were injured or sick and 95 were children. The ages varied from a 27-day-old baby to an 80-year-old man. Three corpses were sent back for burial.

“Malta is proud of having taken part in this humanitarian mission. When it comes to humanitarian aid we are not neutral... we are in favour of helping those in need,” an exuberant Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Tonio Borg told the press yesterday as he welcomed back Team Malta at Senglea’s Boiler Wharf.

Malta had taken on the role of a humanitarian hub from the start of the civil unrest in Libya, he added.

The group left aboard the Maria Dolores catamaran on Tuesday morning and picked up the refugees from Sfax port in Tunisia with the help of the Maltese Embassy. They dropped off 200 at Misurata and then headed for Benghazi where the other 420 disembarked.

After a 10-hour-long journey from Benghazi, the group arrived in Malta at midday, relieved to be back but still bubbling with adrenaline.

The operation was funded by Malta’s Overseas Aid Development Fund but the government is still estimating the cost, which in - cludes the chartering of the vessel and medical supplies.

The Maltese group included a number of volunteers. It was kept under wraps until yesterday for security reasons.

Covert preparations started at the beginning of the week when Dr Jibril called Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and asked for Malta’s help to bring back the refugees who had fled Misurata and Benghazi in the thick of the war. Many of them had lost limbs and had gone to Tunisia for treatment but now wanted to return home as the fighting in Libya increasingly moves towards Tripoli.

Dr Gonzi accepted the request and his office coordinated the operation together with officials from the Department of Defence, Mater Dei Hospital, the Health Department and the Civil Protection Department.

The director of defence, Vanessa Frazier praised all those involved for being prepared for all contingencies. She gave details of the chaotic scenes in Tunisia where, just as the boat was preparing to leave, a family with five children tried to board.

“We had to create a human chain to get them on the ship,” she said, thanking the Prime Minister and other officials in Malta for their constant support and encouragement throughout the operation. Dr Gonzi is on holiday.

The most dangerous part of the journey was entering Misurata port, which is still considered to be an active war zone.

Asked if Malta was any closer to recognising the Libyan Transitional National Council as the only legitimate government of Libya, Dr Borg said: “We are following the developments from day to day... We will make any declarations in due time.”

So far, Malta has recognised the TNC as the sole interlocutor of the Libyan people.

“It looks like Tripoli is encircled but let’s not forget that a third of Libyans live there,” Dr Borg said, when asked for an overview of the current state of affairs in Libya.