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Row over ship with 600 migrants aboard adrift off Italy

Row over ship with 600 migrants aboard adrift off Italy

Italy has refused to allow a humanitarian ship carrying more than 600 migrants and refugees to dock at its ports, officials say, and has now asked the Mediterranean island of Malta to open its doors to the vessel.

On Sunday, Italy had refused to allow the vessel to dock in its ports, demanding that Malta should take it in.

Among those saved and brought on board the Aquarius are 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 younger children and seven pregnant women, the SOS Mediterranee said.

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said Italy's refusal to allow the Aquarius ship to dock at an Italian port risks "creating a risky situation for all those involved".

Matteo Salvini, the head of the far-right League party who became interior minister this month vowing to crack down on the influx of migrants from Africa, blocked the ship, operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders, over the weekend.

His second says, "Malta is in full conformity with global obligations and will not take the vessel in its ports".

"Starting today, Italy, too, begins to say NO to the trafficking of human beings, NO to the business of clandestine immigration", Salvini tweeted Sunday.

According to the daily Corriere Della Sera, the letter describes Malta's capital, Valletta, as the "most secure port" and the boat should thus dock there.

Salvini, in a joint statement with Italian coastguard minister Danilo Toninelli, insisted that Malta "cannot continue to look the other way when it comes to respecting precise global conventions on the protection of human life".

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A spokesman for the Maltese government told AFP they "have not received communication from Salvini so far", but that "Malta was neither the coordinating nor the competent authority" in the rescue.

Malta's prime minister Joseph Muscat said: "The Italian government is breaching global rules and, with its attitude, is risking to create a situation that would be unsafe to everyone".

The minister is being seen as making good on "get-tough" anti-immigration electoral promises by banning the boat in a move which has seismic implications for the European Union and global asylum policy.

More than 600,000 migrants and refugees have reached Italy by boat from Africa in the past five years.

"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 said.

The mayors of Palermo, Taranto, Messina and Reggio Calabria, have also said they would be ready to welcome the vessel.

Malta said the German charity SOS Mediterranee had picked up the migrants in Libyan waters, which meant they fell under Italy's jurisdiction.

Under the worldwide law, people rescued in the sea should be brought to the closest and safest port for assistance. It is not possible for Malta to say "no" to every request for help.