The US had no intention of pressuring Malta to sign the status of forces agreement (SOFA), the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Kathleen Doherty, said yesterday.

Following talks with Foreign Minister George Vella and Opposition Leader Simon Busuttil, Ms Doherty, who is responsible for relations with Malta, said that, although the US was still “in exploration mode” when it came to relations with the new Labour government, there did not appear to be any real problems.

Relations between the two countries would continue to evolve positively, Ms Doherty said. She described her meeting with Dr Vella as very cordial and useful.

“Minister Vella has a very good insight into international affairs, particularly on the Mediterranean, which we find very useful an important,” she said.

Pressed on whether the US will still be insisting with the Maltese government on signing the so-called SOFA agreement, Ms Doherty diplomatically said Washington would not put any pressure, adding that “it is up to the Maltese government to decide on the way forward”.

A SOFA agreement establishes the rights and privileges of foreign personnel, including the military, in a host country, such as which country’s court would be competent to hear cases should military staff be involved in crime in a host country.

In Malta’s case, such an agreement could also have a positive economic impact because it facilitates the possibility of US military vessels visiting Malta or being serviced at shipyards here.

Despite diplomatic pressure by the US authorities in the past, Malta steered clear from signing, particularly due to the political implications it could have on the island’s neutrality clause in the Constitution.

According to cables released by Wikileaks in 2011, the Maltese government had indicated its willingness to arrive to some form of agreement. However, the previous Administration later denied that it had started negotiations on the matter.

When still in Opposition, Dr Vella had said that Labour still had to discuss the subject but his advice was not to give in on any issues related to jurisdiction.

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