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Italy's Salvini threatens to block migrant ships in row with Malta

Italy's Salvini threatens to block migrant ships in row with Malta

Both governments refused to allow the ship to dock, before Spain offered it safe port on Monday afternoon "to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe".

The Aquarius, the rescue ship operated by SOS Mediterranee, has been stuck at sea 35 nautical miles off the coast of Sicily since Saturday when Italy refused permission to dock and demanded Malta do so.

However, charities questioned why the coast guard boat was being allowed to dock in Italy, while migrants on the Aquarius, who had been at sea for longer, were not.

The Aquarius is one of few NGO boats left in central Mediterranean, where so far this year have drowned 784 migrants, according to recount United Nations agency for Refugees.

Maltese premier Joseph Muscat accused Italy of violating worldwide norms governing sea rescues and said its stance risked "creating a risky situation for all those involved".

He said Malta would be sending fresh supplies to the vessel, adding: "We will have to sit down and discuss how to prevent this from happening again".

League leader Matteo Salvini was sworn in as interior minister earlier this month and has vowed to clamp down on illegal immigration and change European Union rules. Salvini had earlier issued a joint statement with Italian Transportation Minister Danilo Toninelli of the 5-Star Movement, saying Malta "cannot continue to look the other way when it comes to respecting precise worldwide conventions on the protection of human life".

Medicins Sans Frontiers said: "This plan would mean to people already exhausted to spend four more days on the sea".

The ship, with 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and 7 pregnant women aboard, is waiting in worldwide waters between Italy and Malta.

"Ships belonging to foreign organisations and flying foreign flags can not dictate Italy's immigration policy", said Salvini, who is also head of the anti-immigrant League. "The coastguard and navy can continue to save lives, but other countries need to keep giving us a hand".

SOS Mediterranee director general Sophie Beau said Spain's offer "is encouraging and shows that some states are sensitive to the humanitarian emergency".

In the meantime, some in Italy have offered to take in the migrants, with the mayor of Taranto, Rinaldo Melucci, saying that the southern port city was "ready to embrace every life in danger".

SOS Mediterranee said Maltese search-and-rescue authorities were contacted by their Italian counterparts "to find the best solution for the well-being and safety" of the people on the ship.

"Given the location of the ship and the urgency, my opinion is that it would be natural to open a Corsican port to help those people in distress", President of Corsican Assembly Jean-Guy Talamoni, tweeted on Monday evening.

That has put pressure on Italy and Greece, the entry points for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia since 2015.


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