Italy closes ports to migrant ship in row with Malta

The migrants being rescued

Spain offered on Monday to take in a rescue ship that is drifting in the Mediterranean sea with 629 migrants stranded on board after Italy and Malta refused to let it dock.

The standoff is actually the third in recent weeks, after the outgoing government of Premier Paolo Gentiloni refused to let humanitarian aid groups dock in Italian ports until the ships' flag nations had formally requested permission.

SOS Mediterranee confirmed that there were 629 people on board, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women after being involved in six rescue operations off the coast of Libya.

The Aquarius, a rescue vessel run by Medecins Sans Frontieres, is now stranded in global waters after Italy closed its ports.

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.

The ship said it had been ordered on Sunday night by Italy's coast guard to remain 35 miles off Italy and 27 miles from Malta. "France pushes people back at the border; Spain defends its frontier with weapons".

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

Speaking to news channel Sky TG24, Aquarius crew member Alessandro Porro said that they were north of Malta and had "received no communications from the Maltese authorities".

Operation Themis, which replaced Operation Triton was put in effect earlier this year, meaning that Italy was no longer obliged to take all migrants rescued from the Mediterranean Sea.

Salvini, leader of the right-wing League, had promised voters ahead of the country's recent general election that it would act tough against immigration.

However, the ship has been allowed to dock in the Sicilian capital, after Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of Palermo, defied the new Italian populist government's orders.

"I am not going to give any rash statements - wherever there are any misunderstandings [with Italy], we need to clarify them", Muscat said, "We need to have good relations with all our neighbours, both European and African".

Another local resident, Natale Lombardo, said illegal migrants disembarking on the island were virtually "invading" them, adding that "he who arrives here legally is welcomed, but between these people there are also illegals and those can't be tolerated".

"My aim is to guarantee a peaceful life for these youths in Africa and for our children in Italy", Salvini said, using the Twitter hashtag "We are shutting the ports".

The same day Italian authorities held the migrant rescue boat Sea-Watch 3 for 12 hours after it brought 232 people to Reggio Calabria, on the south-western tip of the mainland.

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