Conflict & Justice

Libyan ship spotted off Malta coast (VIDEO)


A F1 mirage of the Libyan airforce sits on the tarmac of Malta airport after landing on Feb. 21, 2011 at Luqua. Two Libyan fighter jets and two civilian helicopters carrying seven people who told immigration police they were French landed in Malta.


Ben Borg Cardona

The Italian navy is monitoring a Libyan "naval asset" in the Mediterranean close to Malta, according to a report. 

The report comes after two high-ranking Libyan air force pilots fled to Malta in their aircraft, reportedly telling officials that they escaped rather than carry out orders of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi to bomb civilians. The jets arrived Feb. 21 along with two civilian helicopters carrying seven people who told immigration police they were French. 

Witnesses in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, said Tuesday that fighter jets had bombed portions of the city and that "mercenaries" were firing on civilians in the city. Several top Libyan officials — including the Libyan ambassadors to the U.S. and U.N. — have resigned to protest the bloody attacks on civilians. Media outlets put the death toll after several days of protests against Gaddafi, who has been in power since 1969, at 300.

Cal Perry, an Al Jazeera reporter on Malta, said: "We can come to a conclusion that it's some kind of military ship but they're not describing to us exactly what it is. They don't know whether the ship is defecting. It's being watched closely by the Italian navy, by the Italian air force, as well as by the air force and navy here in Malta."

Malta is the closest European Union member to Libya, located just 210 miles off its shores.

"Malta has become a departure point and entry point for people trying to flee Tripoli [Libya's capital]," Perry said, adding that there was chaos at the local airport. "The smallest European country, this tiny island of Malta, has become the central point of European countries to get their citizens out [of Libya].

"As the situation develops, perhaps ... we'll see more and more Libyan officials coming here to defect, because it's just geographically close."

However, Maltese forces denied they were monitoring any Libyan warships, according to the Times of Malta.

Protesters said they had taken control of several important towns, including the eastern city of Benghazi, after days of bloody clashes with government forces. According to the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR), protesters are also in control of Sirte, Tobruk in the east, as well as Misrata, Khoms, Tarhounah, Zenten, Al-Zawiya and Zouara.

Jon Jensen, reporting by phone for GlobalPost from Sallum on the Egypt-Libya border on Tuesday, said that border guards had opened the crossing to enable the sick and injured to enter Egypt.

The Egyptian military had set up a field hospital near the border crossing and was preparing for the worst.

He said the normally sleepy town of Sallum was bustling with activity, and Egyptian forces were allowing Egyptians and Libyans wounded in reportedly heavy fighting in the Eastern part of Libya to cross into Egypt.

Jensen spoke with several returnees who described a state of lawlessness with mainly anti-government forces in control and only pockets of fighters loyal to the regime.

"Everybody inside Libya has a gun. It's completely lawless," he quoted one as saying. "We're really happy to get back into Egypt because it's safer," said another, calling himself Ali Hussein. "There's no government [in Libya]."

The head of the hospital, Lt. Col. Raof Ezzat, told Jensen: "I prefer not to have to be ready but I'm expecting the worst."

Jensen said Egypt's Ministry of Health was also preparing for the worst, with 80 ambulances on call and 1,000 units of blood ready.