Malta and Libya have finally hammered out a search and rescue co-operation agreement in a concerted bid to reduce loss of life in the Mediterranean.

The agreement aims to establish clear points of responsibility and demarcation as well as identify the correct contact details in cases of sea rescue.

A Libyan delegation met with senior Armed Forces of Malta officials in recent days and a draft Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) is expected to be formalised shortly. The Libyan eight-man delegation was headed by Tripoli Port's General Manager Mohammed Ahmed Rashid.

Despite the diplomatic tone used by the two sides, Malta and Libya have been involved in a constant wrangle over illegal immigration, amid grey areas of sea responsibility, and accusations that the north African country was shirking its responsibilities. Discussions to draft a SAR agreement have dragged on for about 11 months, though the tide appeared to have turned last August when Libya agreed to host a Maltese delegation.

Vanessa Fraser, director of the Defence Matters Directorate, is optimistic: "Through this agreement, both countries exchange the information at once... the rescue co-ordination centres will know who to contact and where... The MOU also stipulates the number and kind of rescue craft and personnel needed."

The agreement also makes it possible for Libya to make use of the AFM's training centre, renowned as a centre of excellence in its field.

Though the agreement will cover the problem of illegal immigration, especially during the summer months, Ms Fraser explained that in reality the largest number of incidents involve fishermen and personal or commercial craft.

Malta has a series of SAR agreements in place with Italy and earlier this month signed an agreement with Greece through which both countries pledged to work together.

Problems normally occur when incidents take place in Libyan SAR waters. The most publicised took place last May, when 27 illegal immigrants were forced to cling on to a Maltese-owned tuna pen in Libyan SAR waters for nearly 24 hours after the owner refused to accept the men on board his boat.

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