On August 13, a few weeks before Libya's National Day on Thursday, it was announced that Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, had accepted an invitation to visit the Island again after a lapse of 21 years.

The invitation was made by President Fenech Adami when he was still prime minister, and was renewed in writing by his successor, Dr Lawrence Gonzi, during his visit to Libya last October.

This news has not only revived interest in this political figure and rekindled the importance of Libyan-Maltese relations in those who have these relations at heart, but has also brought to the fore the need to continually cement our relations with our neighbouring country, for obvious reasons.

This was confirmed by Maltese reaction to news of the visit. Both Government and Opposition have reacted favourably. Foreign Minister Michael Frendo has referred to it as a significant confirmation of the strong relations between the two countries, especially considering Colonel Gaddafi's reluctance to travel. He considers it as very positive, ensuring that our relations are kept at a multi-lateral level, as well as confirming the deep, ongoing dynamic relationship.

MLP foreign affairs spokesman Leo Brincat said his party welcomed Colonel Gaddafi's decision to visit Malta, since this could serve to improve bilateral relations.

To say the least, the proposed visit is both portentous and significant, keeping in mind the close relations that Libya and Malta have had for the past 36 years, which at times went through certain difficulties but never waned, and the figure of a personality who has been at the head of his country's development since 1969.

It was exactly 36 years ago, on September 1, 1969, that we in Malta - and for that matter the rest of the world - heard of Muammar Gaddafi for the first time. News agencies all over the world were blaring the news that a coup against the monarchy had taken place in the North African country.

It was a bloodless coup, and there were no casualties. At that time, besides Italian nationals who had remained in Libya after Italian troops had returned home at the end of the Italian occupation following their defeat in World War II, there were also a British military base and an American military air base in Libya. These bases were closed down soon after the September 1 revolution.

The coup overthrew King Idris and the Senussi monarchy, and a republic was declared. The entire operation was led by a young army officer, a lieutenant by the name of Muammar Gaddafi.

Later during the day, his voice was heard for the first time over Libyan radio declaring: "As of now, Libya shall be free and sovereign. A republic under the name of the Libyan Arab Republic...

"No oppressed or deceived or wronged, no master and no slave, but free brothers in a society over which God willing shall flutter the banner of brotherhood and equality... And thus shall we build a glory, revive a heritage and avenge a wounded dignity."

From that day on the personality of the Libyan leader grew in stature. Under his guidance Libya was put back on the world map and the country developed. Revenue from the oil wells, which were nationalised, was used for housing, education, infrastructure, agriculture and industry. And the country thrived.

Then in 1977 Colonel Gaddafi handed over the administration of the country directly to the Libyan people. Creating a new form to administer a country, the Authority of the People, Colonel Gaddafi was the first world leader to let his people govern themselves. It is to Colonel Gaddafi's and the Libyan people's credit that this system has survived.

Malta, Libya's next-door neighbour, saw the ingenuity of the new Libyan leader and was one of the first countries to recognise the new administration. The two countries developed a very close relationship. Colonel Gaddafi came to Malta in 1974 and opened the Libyan Arab Cultural Institute in Valletta.

He visited Malta again in 1976, 1978 and 1979. Then the problem of the Median Line cropped up, and relations between the two countries suffered a setback. But the strong friendship between the two countries survived this crisis.

In 1982 the Libyan leader again made a stopover in Malta after visiting Austria and relations were no longer strained. Agreements were signed and Malta thrived on the collaboration extended by Libya. The Libyan leader again visited Malta in 1984.

Since then 21 years have passed. Malta is now a member of the European Union and Libya has updated and changed its foreign policy. The bond struck in 1969 between the two neighbouring countries is still strong. It is a co-operation that was not built on convenience but based on the fact that Malta and Libya really wanted to help each other for their mutual benefit.

And in fact Malta, along with Italy, pressed the EU to lift the embargo imposed on Libya in 1986, since Libya would thus be able to buy new equipment to beef up its border controls against illegal migration, which was becoming a great problem for Libya and Malta, Italy and other European countries.

Last October the EU foreign ministers, meeting in Luxembourg, decided to remove the sanctions against Libya, including the arms embargo. It was the first time that the EU was committing itself with Malta's neighbour. And during the same Council in Luxembourg, Dr Frendo emphasised the need for Libya to be integrated in the Barcelona process and the EU's Euro-Med policy.

Through such moves and others, as it has done in its decades-long relations with Libya, Malta has shown that whenever the moment comes and Libya needed its support, Malta was always there. And only recently, Libya made extensive use of Malta's friendship during the difficult times of the international embargo. Libya knows that it can count on this support and friendship.

Now new issues have cropped up. There are issues due to new phases in policy and mainly administrative ones, like the visa issue. There is also the issue of the new fishing zone announced by Libya, which now covers areas that had been used by Maltese fishermen for years. But above all there is the issue of illegal immigration, which now has grown into one of huge proportions.

Talks on all these issues have taken place between the two countries and efforts are in hand to try to find the right solutions. One can be sure that these issues will be discussed when the Libyan leader next arrives in Malta. And as Dr Saad El Shelmani, the newly appointed Libyan Ambassador to Malta, was quoted as saying: "This visit is being considered as a very important one. The fact that Colonel Gaddafi is coming to Malta will be proof of how strong the relations between the two countries are.

"Besides, when the two leaders meet, they can bring up several themes and find solutions for them. This visit will surely serve to strengthen the ties between the two countries even further."

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