Migrants remain at sea as Italy-Malta standoff escalates

Migrants remain at sea as Italy-Malta standoff escalates

On Tuesday, France's president and prime minister took the newly-elected government of Italy to task for refusing to grant a migrant rescue vessel permission to dock.

Italy and Malta had both refused to let the Gibraltar-flagged Aquarius ship, whose passengers include 11 children and seven pregnant women rescued off the coast of Libya at the weekend, to dock, prompting the European Union and the United Nations refugee agency to call for a swift end to the standoff.

Ms Robles, who took office in the new centre-Left government of Pedro Sánchez last week, said that what was happening in Italy was "very problematic".

Farther west in the Mediterranean, Spain's maritime rescue service saved 334 migrants and recovered four bodies from boats it intercepted trying to reach Europe over the weekend.

Sanchez went on say that "It is our duty to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a safe harbour to these people in accordance with global law".

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said on Facebook that he had called on his Maltese counterpart, Joseph Muscat, to "explicitly at least take on the human assistance of persons in difficulty aboard the Aquarius".

'A European issue' Malta and Italy both thanked Spain for stepping up, but maintained their dispute over who was responsible.

The new Spanish foreign minister said that Spain's decision in accepting the migrant ship is also meant to push European Union leaders to address the bloc's migration policies later this month at an EU summit.

The ship, which was located in global waters between Malta and Italy, is carrying 629 people on board, with reports of the vessel only having enough food to last one day. The crisis came after Italy's new right-wing interior minister made good on a pledge to close the country's ports to non-governmental organisations that pick up migrants at sea.

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"In the Italian case, turning this into a political weapon is despicable.it is clear that Europe must act more wisely, but we can not let these people die at sea", he said.

The rescuers say those on board Acquarius include 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children, and 7 pregnant women.

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

Muscat said on Sunday he had told Conte his country would not take the ship.

"Saving lives is a duty, turning Italy into a huge refugee camp is not".

"Our objective is the disembarkation in a port of safety of the 629 people now on board the Aquarius - some we rescued yesterday night in hard conditions", she was quoted by Reuters as saying.

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.

The ship was carrying 629 migrants rescued within the Libyan search and rescue region, making Lampedusa its nearest safe port.

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