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Four Libyan Pilots Fly Home from Egypt

March 3, 1988

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Four Libyan pilots who landed in Egypt two days earlier flew their Soviet- built warplanes home Thursday in a rare example of cooperation between the combative neighbors, sources in both countries said.

An Egyptian government source said permission for the MiG-23s to leave indicated Cairo accepted a Libyan explanation that bad weather and shortage of fuel forced the planes down. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

Cairo newspapers had presented the landings as a defection.

Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency quoted a Libyan air force spokesman as saying the planes ″returned to Libya today (Thursday).″ It said the confirmation was distributed by JANA, the official Libyan agency.

″It is a gesture of Egyptian good will,″ the government source said of the decision to allow the planes to return home. He referred indirectly to a political rift that has allowed few such gestures in 15 years.

He said the pilots and MiG-23s left for Libya from the Mediterranean town of Mersa Matrouh, where they were taken after landing at a desert oasis near the border.

On Tuesday, MENA quoted an official source as saying four Libyan MiG-23s had landed at an Egyptian airfield. A source at the Cairo airport said they put down at Siwa Oasis, 30 miles east of the border and 385 miles west of Cairo.

Libya remained silent until Thursday morning, when an air force spokesman who was not identified said the planes asked permission to land in Egypt after running low on fuel.

His statement, distributed by the official agency JANA, said bad weather had thwarted repeated attempts to land in Libya.

President Hosni Mubarak confirmed the landing to reporters Tuesday night and said of a reported asylum request by the pilots: ″Egypt is their country. The matter is under study.″

In three cases last year, Libyan fliers defected to Egypt in a transport plane and two helicopters.

The statement by the Libyan air force spokesman Thursday was a departure from usual practice in that it was couched in friendly terms.

He said was quoted as saying: ″The pilots were treated in a fraternal way at the Egyptian base. The aircraft, with their pilots, are on their way to return to their land of the Great Jamahiriyah (Libya).″

Egypt and Libya have been at odds since Egypt refused a merger proposal from Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in the early 1970s. They fought a five-day border war in July 1977 after several bombings in Cairo and other Egyptian cities that Egypt blamed on the Libyans.

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