The pilots of the two Libya Mirage 2000 jets who defected to Malta a year ago returned this afternoon to . . .[restrict]Libya with their warplanes.
The Dassault-built jets finally roared into the sky above Malta’s capital Valetta today after bad weather had forced Tuesday a delay in their departure. Maltese Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi chose nevertheless to go ahead yesterday with a ceremonial presentation of their helmets to the pilots, Colonel Ali al-Rabti and Colonel Abdullah al-Salheen, describing the men as “heroes”.
They had returned to Libya after the revolution and come back to Malta to collect their aeroplanes.
Watched by a small group of expatriate Libyans along with senior members of the Maltese Armed Forces, Gonzi had admitted that when the two pilots had decided to defy their orders to bomb civilians and chose instead to defect to the island, his government had faced “a difficult decision”.
Within 24 hours Qaddafi had sent a delegation demanding the return of the warplanes but the Maltese government had refused to hand over either the aircraft or their pilots. Malta’s position, said Gonzi, had been made even more difficult because there had still been an Air Malta airliner on the tarmac at Tripoli airport when the demands were made.
Nevertheless, he said yesterday that Malta had chosen to be on the right side of history. He added that both Malta and Libya shared common values, including respect for human dignity and he said that he hoped the return of the pilots would a new chapter of good relations between the two states.
Today, giving Victory signs to the watching cameras, the two pilots climbed back into their aircraft on which the old green Qaddafi-era decal has been replaced with the colours of the new Libya.
After they had taken off they executed a slow turn and made a final fly past above Valetta as a gesture of thanks to their former hosts. [/restrict]