Updated 12.25pm

The government is sticking to its assertion that the Frenchmen who were killed in Monday’s plane crash were involved in a French Customs operation despite their being secret service agents.

The accident prompted a number of questions after the French Defence Ministry confirmed that three of the five men on board were officials from the agency for external security, DGSE.

A spokesman for the Office of the Prime Minister said yesterday that the government would not “entertain speculation of any sort”, insisting the Maltese authorities were informed of the French Customs operation.

However, he added, “as part of the EU, [Malta] is bound to cooperate with other member states to carry out operations”. He did not elaborate.

The reference to EU cooperation raises more questions than it answers, because soon after the accident, Brussels’ High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, excluded the plane was involved in any EU operation.

The questions about whether France was using Malta as a stepping stone for covert military operations in Libya and whether these missions had UN or EU authorisation remain unanswered. The Office of the Prime Minister did say that contacts between the Maltese and French governments were ongoing when it was asked whether further clarifications would be sought from the French authorities on the scope of the surveillance operation.

Questions were also sent to the French Defence Ministry, but no replies were forthcoming by the time of writing.

French leftist newspaper Liberation cited an unnamed "expert in Libyan affairs" who claimed that "Malta is the backroom base for all Libyan operations. The French, the English, the Italians, the Americans ... everybody is there." 

The unnamed source, who described Malta as "the Casablanca of the 40s", was quoted by Alternattiva Demokratika chairman Arnold Cassola in a Facebook post he titled 'French newspaper speculations'. 

Four hours after the fatal crash at Malta International Airport, the Maltese government said that the plane was being used for a surveillance operations by French Customs and that it had been going on for five months.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said in Parliament later that the government had based its statement on the official documentation submitted by the French authorities.

French Customs said that none of its personnel had been on board the plane.

Meanwhile, the burnt remains of the Fairchild Metroliner Mark III aircraft were yesterday still strewn across the road on the periphery of Kirkop, just past the airport perimeter fence as investigators continued to probe the cause of the accident.

The plane was registered in the US and leased by Luxembourg-based CAE Aviation, a private contractor used by various law enforcement agencies to conduct surveillance operations.

Two of the victims, both pilots, were CAE employees.

The small plane smashed into the ground soon after having taken off, exploding into a ball of fire upon impact.

kurt.sansone@timesofmalta.com

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