Malta in the Middle

The tiny island nation of Malta, owing to its proximity to Libya — Tripoli is closer to Malta than to Benghazi — has emerged as a major transport hub as nations scramble to evacuate their citizens from Libya. Countries ranging from India, to Russia, to China, to the Philippines have chartered flights to evacuate citizens ...

CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images
CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images
CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images

The tiny island nation of Malta, owing to its proximity to Libya -- Tripoli is closer to Malta than to Benghazi -- has emerged as a major transport hub as nations scramble to evacuate their citizens from Libya. Countries ranging from India, to Russia, to China, to the Philippines have chartered flights to evacuate citizens ferried or flown over from increasingly chaotic Tripoli. Malta has also chartered its own flights to evacuate 900 Egyptians from the country. In total, 12,000 workers have been evacuated through the island, with a population of only 410,000, in just a week. Malta has also offered its territory as a staging ground for humanitarian aid.

Malta might have liked to stay neutral in the conflict. It has long-standing ties with Qaddafi's government dating back to former Prime Minister Dom Mintoff's Arab-centric foreign policy. (Mintoff was awarded the Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights in 2008.) Malta was recently instrumental in helping to mediate the diplomatic row between Libya and Switzerland, and the two countries were discussing a new cooperation agreement as recently as last October.

But Malta was forced to take sides last week when two Libyan fighter pilots landed on the island after refusing to bomb civilian targets. Malta has denied a request from the Libyan government that the two planes be returned, and they've been turned over to RAF specialists for deactivation. The pilots have requested political asylum.

The tiny island nation of Malta, owing to its proximity to Libya — Tripoli is closer to Malta than to Benghazi — has emerged as a major transport hub as nations scramble to evacuate their citizens from Libya. Countries ranging from India, to Russia, to China, to the Philippines have chartered flights to evacuate citizens ferried or flown over from increasingly chaotic Tripoli. Malta has also chartered its own flights to evacuate 900 Egyptians from the country. In total, 12,000 workers have been evacuated through the island, with a population of only 410,000, in just a week. Malta has also offered its territory as a staging ground for humanitarian aid.

Malta might have liked to stay neutral in the conflict. It has long-standing ties with Qaddafi’s government dating back to former Prime Minister Dom Mintoff’s Arab-centric foreign policy. (Mintoff was awarded the Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights in 2008.) Malta was recently instrumental in helping to mediate the diplomatic row between Libya and Switzerland, and the two countries were discussing a new cooperation agreement as recently as last October.

But Malta was forced to take sides last week when two Libyan fighter pilots landed on the island after refusing to bomb civilian targets. Malta has denied a request from the Libyan government that the two planes be returned, and they’ve been turned over to RAF specialists for deactivation. The pilots have requested political asylum.

On Tuesday protesters scaled to the roof of the Libyan Embassy in Balzan to replace the green flag of Qaddafi’s government with the pre-revolutionary version that has become the emblem of the protesters. Additionally, the ambassador said he would accept any flag that represented the Libyan people, but on Thursday, the green flag was back.

In any case, it’s a rare moment in the spotlight for a tiny island in the center of it all.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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