Military helicopters buzzed overhead and sharpshooter police and soldiers
kept watch from rooftops as Queen Elizabeth II of Britain on Wednesday began her
first overseas trip since the July 7 bombings in London.
Security in this tiny Mediterranean island nation was tight following reports
that Islamic terrorists might be planning to target the three-day Commonwealth
summit which begins Friday.
Still, applauding well-wishers were allowed to line the sidewalk of the
narrow medieval street in the Maltese capital’s historic center where the
monarch’s motorcade passed.
In early evening, the queen took a 10-minute walk past the crowds as
thousands of Christmas lights, decorating the street, twinkled overhead.
A Buckingham Palace official, briefing reporters in Malta on condition of
anonymity in accordance with royal policy, said intelligence checks had found
nothing to back purported threats to the queen, but acknowledged that security
had been tightened.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair was expected to attend the summit, which is
held every two years to allow leaders of the 53 Commonwealth nations to consult
on issues including trade, human rights and debt.
A mounted detail of helmeted police preceded the queen’s car as it headed to
her first appointment: talks with Maltese president and former longtime
conservative prime minister, Eddie Fenech Adami.
Maltese crowded balconies and pressed up against windows in buildings lining
the street for a glimpse of the queen, who arrived two days ahead of the summit
Recently retired officers from Malta’s national police department were called
back to duty to beef up the nation’s security forces.
Several hours before the queen’s scheduled arrival at Valletta’s airport,
police in bulletproof vests and armed with automatic rifles joined soldiers on
foot or in vehicles to ring the perimeter of the airport, some 10 kilometers (6
miles) from the historic center of the capital.
Police boats were deployed in the harbor. On Thursday, the queen will go
aboard a British military ship which sailed into the harbor in honor of her
visit, her first to Malta in 13 years.
«For her age, she still looks fantastic,» onlooker Rita Grech-Mallia, said of
the 79-year-old monarch. The Maltese woman recalled being let out of school as a
child in the 1950s for a previous visit by Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was scheduled to depart on Saturday, a day before the meeting’s
Malta, which includes three inhabited islands lying strategically between
north Africa and Italy, gained independence from Britain in 1964 and joined the
European Union last year.
Fifty-six people were killed including four suicide bombers and more than
700 were wounded in the July 7 explosions on three London subway trains and a
bus during the morning rush hour.
Associated Press November 23, 2005 Wednesday