Italy-Malta stand-off over blocked migrants intensifies

Italy-Malta stand-off over blocked migrants intensifies

The Aquarius is operated by the charity SOS Mediterranee, which said on Twitter earlier on Sunday that it had taken on board 629 migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women.

Spain has offered to take in a rescue ship carrying more than 600 migrants after Italy and Malta refused.

Aid group SOS Mediterraneee said the passengers on its ship, the Aquarius, included 400 people who were picked up by the Italian navy, that country's coast guard and private cargo ships and transferred.

The Aquarius, a former North Atlantic fisheries protection ship now used by humanitarian groups SOS Mediterranee and Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), is seen in December 2017 during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea.

Spain's new Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez stepped in, offering the boat safe harbor in the eastern port city of Valencia.

On Tuesday morning, Italian rescuers offered to help transfer the migrants to Spain, following three nights of tension for the migrants and aid workers, and after authorities on the French island of Corsica also offered the vessel safe haven.

But the charity's missions will continue "as long as there are people drowning in the Mediterranean, as long as we have the resources, and as long as we are able to act and we are not kicked out of the area", she said.

More than 600 people are stuck aboard the ship Aquarius, run by a French charity, which is now waiting between Malta and Italy while the two countries row over who should take responsibility.

Italy's new anti-migrant, right-wing interior minister, Matteo Salvini, is making good on a campaign pledge to close Italian ports to non-governmental organizations that pick up migrants at sea, which he has likened to taxi services for migrant smugglers.

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"By closing their ports, Italy and Malta have not only turned their backs on more than 600 desperate and vulnerable people but also on their obligations under global law", Elisa De Pieri, Amnesty International's Italy researcher, said in a statement.

Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat tweeted his thanks to Sanchez "for agreeing to accept the Aquarius after Italy violated worldwide law and caused an impasse".

However the one-off fix was not adequate, the charity said, calling on European leaders to step up and find shared solutions to support countries on the frontline, such as Italy. The Aquarius on Monday was more than 1,400 kilometres (over 750 nautical miles) from Valencia and by late Monday said it hadn't received any instructions yet to head to Spain.

Spain offered on Monday to take in a humanitarian ship stranded in worldwide waters with 629 migrants aboard, prompting Italy's new anti-establishment government to claim victory in its bid to get European partners to help more on immigration. He says Malta would send fresh supplies to the Aquarius. "The details of this agreement are not known and we don't know if Salvini will inherit that deal", he said.

Italy's new populist coalition government between the far-right League party and anti-establishment Five Star Movement has pledged to stop the flow of people entering the country through the Mediterranean.

But Griveaux accused the new far-right/populist government in Rome of lacking solidarity after it refused to allow the migrant rescue boat Aquarius to land with more than 600 people on board. In two polls conducted in September, 46 percent of Italians said that they felt that migration made Italy less secure, and just over half said that their government had not done enough to curb immigration.

Under worldwide law, people rescued at sea should be brought to the nearest and safest port for assistance.

European Union leaders in December set an end-June deadline for an overhaul of rules to create a permanent mechanism to deal with migrants.

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