A couple of weeks into his new job as AFM Commander, Brigadier Martin Xuereb talks to Kurt Sansone about his vision for the army, illegal immigration, promotions and deploying soldiers off the Somali coast.

Carefully chosen words that disclose little and avoid 'yes' and 'no' answers are the hallmark of a diplomat, and such characteristics are not lost on the new army commander.

Brigadier Martin Xuereb does not use military-speak and his composed manner of answering says a lot about his long stint in Brussels as Malta's military representative to the EU.

Brussels-speak and grey suits have left their mark on Brig. Xuereb, and although he recognises the importance of communicating the army's vision, he handles the media at a safe distance.

He defends the army's handling of illegal immigrants out at sea, and argues that there are "different interpretations" as to what constitutes a boat in distress. The Brigadier steers clear of the controversy surrounding the death of Gunner Matthew Psaila last year during a training exercise and insists the AFM has taken on board recommendations to change its training regime. He insists soldiers' participation in EU sea patrols off Somalia is dependent on answers to "clarifications" the army is seeking about the mission.

At 42, Brig. Xuereb is one of the youngest commanders of the AFM, and having started his military career in 1988, his rise to the top has been relatively fast. After training in Italy and Britain, he was appointed lieutenant, and between 1991 and 1992 he commanded an infantry platoon. A year later he was appointed staff officer at AFM's headquarters.

Sitting on a wooden chair in the Officers' Mess at the army's Luqa headquarters bedecked by army memorabilia, he is aware of the AFM's deep tradition as a flexible army trusted with jobs that are not normally performed by the military.

The AFM is Malta's fisheries protection entity. It serves as a coastguard and provides assistance to the police, among others, performing duties that are not strictly military, he says.

Flexibility, he adds, is a quality any army requires today to be able to face modern security challenges that range from mass migration to terrorism and climate change.

However, he goes one step further and insists the AFM's focus has to be "outward looking". Loosely translated, it means he would like to see soldiers increasingly serve in missions abroad.

This vision can be traced back to Brig. Xuereb's 1996 posting in Brussels as defence attaché, representing Malta in the partnership coordination cell of Nato's Partnership for Peace programme, and his later involvement in coordinating and commanding the first of a series of humanitarian trips to Kosovo.

Shortly after the last general election, Malta rejoined the Partnership for Peace programme after withdrawing in 1996. Two years ago, government and army officials had gone to great lengths to explain that PfP membership had nothing to do with membership of the military organisation Nato, even if one is the brainchild of the other.

Was it by coincidence, then, that two years later the US ambassador asked Malta to contribute to the Nato-led peace efforts in Afghanistan?

"I don't know. I am not the right person to answer this question. But I do not see the link, because Malta determines its own priorities in the PfP programme," he says, pointing out that the army does not make policy but only executes it.

The decision to rejoin PfP was a political one, he adds, but Malta had identified search and rescue, international maritime law, and crisis management operations with a focus on humanitarian assistance as its priorities.

"Malta also stipulated it was a neutral country with no interest in joining Nato," Brig. Xuereb says, insisting it was up to the country to decide in what missions it participated, "first and foremost, for its own benefit".

Using the political in-word, he says any deployment abroad has to be "sustainable".

"Our participation in any operation has to be relative to our size and resources to be sustainable. Other countries understand this."

The government has signalled its intention to participate in the EU's Somalia mission by having soldiers on board foreign military ships patrolling the seas off the Horn of Africa. The patrols are intended to ward off Somali pirates who have been terrorising and seizing commercial ships passing through the area.

Apart from sea patrols, the EU also has another operation in Somalia to train Somali soldiers in Uganda. The AFM, which already has an officer taking part in the Somali mission's command centre in Britain, is interested in participating in both operations.

Malta's contribution, small as it may be, will help bring stability to that country, he says, pointing out that most migrants that come to Malta are from war-torn Somalia.

The commander does not give details about what will be expected of Maltese soldiers deployed on foreign military ships, insisting that the AFM was waiting for a number of clarifications.

"I do not want to give information over and above what has been said because this is an ongoing operation. However, before deploying anybody, we want clarifications on a number of concerns we have raised," he says.

But to whom would a Maltese soldier be answerable on a foreign vessel?

The Brigadier does not have a definitive answer, saying the AFM is still waiting for replies on a number of issues raised. "These are matters that are agreed beforehand. If the answers satisfy us then we will proceed," he says.

Closer to home it is still unclear whether the AFM will take part in the EU border agency's Frontex sea patrols after guidelines approved by the Council of Ministers stipulated that the host country would have to take in all rescued migrants.

Malta has objected and even declared it would not participate in Frontex if the guidelines remain as they are.

Brig. Xuereb explains that irrespective of what the guidelines say, Frontex operations are governed by operational plans that "may or may not draw from the guidelines".

"The guidelines also state that the modalities of the operation will be agreed upon in the operational plan decided by countries that participate in the mission," he says, insisting the operational plan superseded the guidelines.

"We have always participated in Frontex and we did so after agreeing to the operational plan with other participating countries."

An operational plan would have to deal with the contentious issue of disembarkation - where rescued migrants would be taken.

Brig. Xuereb says Malta adheres to international law and contends that rescued people would have to be taken to the nearest, safest port of call.

"This has always been our position and it has not changed," he adds.

The EU Council's guidelines on disembarkation are intended to avoid the conflicts that happened last year between Malta and Italy over who should take in rescued migrants, but Brig. Xuereb would not commit himself when asked whether it was the right solution.

"The controversy on disembarkation did not arise last year. It has been a constant headache for years and will always remain a contentious issue," he says.

Although lack of participation in Frontex is still a premature assumption to make according to Brig. Xuereb, he admits this could translate into financial loss for the AFM. Frontex operations are funded by the EU agency. If Malta does not participate it would still have to patrol its seas and so fund its own operations.

Illegal immigration is a major problem for the AFM. The army has often come under attack from humanitarian agencies over the way it handles migrants out at sea.

Does the AFM have an obligation to rescue boat people or allow them to continue on their journey?

"The army, like any other vessel at sea, is obliged to offer assistance to any boat that is in distress. We have never reneged on this obligation. We make no distinction between somebody on a yacht or somebody on a fibreglass boat," he says.

His academic reply is unlikely to go down too well with those who contend that 50 people huddled on a small fibreglass boat should automatically be considered in distress and so helped rather than allowed to proceed with their journey.

Brig. Xuereb is not fazed by the argument. He says that determining whether a boat is in distress or not depends on many factors.

"It depends on whether people on board have asked for help, whether the boat is moving ahead on its own steam, on the weather, and if your intervention would make things worse. Who is in distress will ask for help, and if a person does not ask for help, that could be a clear enough indication that he is not in distress," he says.

But what happens when only a few of the people on board feel they are in distress and require rescuing?

"If an individual feels he is in distress for whatever reason, then he will be rescued. A person may be ill or pregnant... the AFM has never negated rescue whenever somebody was in distress," he reiterates.

In the wake of last year's dispute between Malta and Italy, Cabinet had even declared it official policy that the army would assist boats that are not in danger of sinking to continue with their journey.

The commander defends the army's decision to provide fuel, lifejackets and water to migrants on the high seas, insisting it falls within the parameters of international law to provide assistance when required.

The diplomat in him kicks in, arguing it all boils down to the "interpretation" of what is meant by distress.

"If giving somebody a lifejacket will make him safer, it is assistance. There are various interpretations of what constitutes a boat in distress," he says.

Brig. Xuereb stiffens when the interview turns to Gunner Matthew Psaila's tragic death last year. The look on his face displays the distress the tragedy has caused the army; however, in view of pending criminal charges against two officers, a few moments of silence pass before he replies.

"Matthew's death was a tragedy for the AFM and a big tragedy for his family. Any incident at any level kicks off an internal procedure to identify the lessons learnt. Soon after Matthew's death, new recruits took swimming sessions in sea and fresh water. Today, recruits are also taught basic life-saving techniques to protect themselves and their colleagues," he says.

Everything else pales into insignificance when a work colleague dies, but as army chief Brig. Xuereb has to deal with other human resource issues, foremost being the perennial problem of promotions.

Soldiers were promised annual promotions. But the ones scheduled for last October were not issued until four months later - announced just two days ago.

Last year, soldiers were given a booklet explaining all the issues that determined how promotions would be awarded. The system now includes a report book drawn up by the soldier's superiors, and also includes the individual's comments.

The system gave rise to hope that promotion exercises would be regular and fair, but the delay has caused consternation among the army's rank and file.

Brig. Xuereb agrees that the army should live up to its obligations but insists he had the duty to ensure the process was "transparent and without mistakes".

But why does this issue remain an open wound despite the Ombudsman having lambasted the system in the past?

"The wound is closing much faster these days. A lot of time used to pass between one promotion exercise and another, even five years. We have reduced that, but I have to ensure things are done correctly," he says.

Brig. Xuereb disagrees that bureaucracy is to blame for the delay, preferring to couch the issue in different terms.

"Bureaucracy has a negative connotation. This time the delay is there to ensure things are done correctly," he says.

Under his watch where would Brig. Xuereb like to see the army in five to 10 years' time?

His reply sounds very much like a politician rallying support for his cause: "I would like to see an army that is of service to the country. An army viewed positively by the people and one that rises to the challenges. I would like an army that turns challenges into opportunities."

Watch excerpts of the interview on timesofmalta.com.

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