The two Libyan Colonels who defected to Malta in Mirage supersonic jets are still being interviewed by the security services.
It has also been learned that the fighters – not quite top-notch aircraft, but still potent weapons – remain the property of Libya. However, it is understood that they will remain impounded until the situation in North Africa settles, a high-ranking Army source told this newspaper.
It has also been learned that, while the two high-ranking officers (incidentally the same rank as Col Gadaffi) have applied for political asylum, the Geneva Convention does not provide for military personnel to do so. It is also understood that the two men’s application will be decided on by the Refugee Commissioner, and it also remains to be seen whether the two men will be liable to automatic detention, as has been the case with other asylum seekers.
Meanwhile, AFM sources have told this newspaper that the jets, recently refurbished under an agreement signed by Gaddafi and Nikolas Sarkozy, broke out of formation when their squadron was ordered to attack Libyan civilians. The aircraft were armed with rocket pods – a deadly anti-personnel weapon.
While it is not yet known whether the two Colonels were in command of the mission and whether they encouraged their fellow pilots to make for Malta, it has been established that the two aircraft peeled off and dove for the deck. They flew below 500 feet to avoid detection while in Libyan airspace – presumably both out of fear of surface-to-air missiles being launched from Libya and also to lose the rest of the squadron. It is understood that the flight, which takes about 40-45 minutes on a commercial jet liner, took only six to nine minutes in the Mirages, as afterburners were engaged. In pilot talk, as one source put it, they “bunted, dove for the deck, hit the afterburners and screamed towards Malta”.
There are two accounts of how the aircraft made contact. Some sources say they requested emergency landing clearance as they were out of fuel (Malta is obliged to acquisce), while others said that the planes landed in formation and only announced their arrival when they set down on the tarmac on the commercial runway.
While the intentions of these two officers seem genuine, their arrival within minutes of leaving Libya is a chilling reminder of just how close Malta is to a strike. It also evokes memories of when former Prime Minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici allegedly tipped off Gaddafi that unauthorized aircraft were flying over Maltese airspace heading south towards Tripoli. Gaddafi and his family rushed out of their residence in the Bab al Aziziya compound moments before the bombs dropped. Gaddafi escaped injury but his 15-month-old adopted daughter Hanna was killed, and two of his sons were injured. However, according to Giulio Andreotti it was Bettino Craxi who warned Gaddafi. The attack was carried out by the US. The air strike killed 45 Libyan soldiers and government officials, and 15 civilians.
The two Colonels who arrived in Malta are understood to have taken off from the Okba Bin Nafe Air Base near Tripoli. This is another connection from the past, in 1981 where two US aircraft destroyed two Libyan Sukhoi-22s in what was termed the Gulf of Sidra Incident. The Libyan planes had taken off from the same airbase.
An E-2C Hawkeye from Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron VAW-124 made radar contact with two Sukhoi Su-22 Fitters. Two F-14s were ordered to intercept. Only a few seconds before the crossing, at an estimated distance of 300 m, one of the Libyans fired an AA-2 "Atoll"at one of the F-14s, which missed. Then the two Libyans flew past the Americans and tried to escape. The Tomcats evaded and were cleared to return fire by their "rules of engagement", which mandated self defense on the initiation of hostile action. The Tomcats then turned hard port and came behind the Libyan jets. The Americans fired AIM-9L Sidewinders and destroyed the two aircraft.
Libyan ship rumour denied
After a day of tension where rumour after rumour began to fly in about potential defections, mass emigration from Libya and more, the dust eventually settled.
However, nerves were jangled when Arab Satellite TV network Al Jazeera carried a report saying that an unidentified Libyan vessel had been spotted in Maltese territorial waters.
The AFM immediately refuted the assertation and a Maritime source confirmed that the Air Wing and Maritime Squadron had stepped up patrols around Malta. The same rumour was also quashed by a government spokesman later in the day.
AFM, police on stop leave
The Armed Forces of Malta and the Police Corps have been put on a state of readiness and all leave has been cancelled. It is understood that the move was made to ward off “any eventuality” of the forces of law and order being overwhelmed by duties. Sources said that this was mostly related to the possibility of an influx on migrants from Libya, rather than anything military.
No Sky Marshals on Air Malta planes
The Malta Independent also received reports of Sky Marshals beign on board Air Malta flights to Tripoli. They were rumoured to be from the AFM and the Police Special Assignment Group. TMI made contact with the Police, the AFM, the Interior Ministry and the Foreign Ministry; but all denied that this was the case.