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

The vessel is now awaiting "definitive instructions", the humanitarian group said.

"In the meantime, the Maltese government is concerned at the Italian authorities' directions being given to Acquarius on the high seas which go against global rules, and risk creating a risky situation for all those involved".

The spokesman said it took place in the Libyan search and rescue area and was headed up by the rescue coordination centre in Rome, meaning Malta has no legal obligation to take in the migrants.

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.

In a statement late Sunday after speaking with his Italian counterpart, Muscat refused to let the ship dock in a Maltese port, but said Malta will conduct emergency medical evacuations if necessary.

"The island can't continue to turn the other way", the ministers said.

Italy's firebrand interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who leads the anti-immigrant League party in the governing coalition, has long railed against what he depicts as Europe's failure to show solidarity with Italy during the migrant crisis in recent years. "The Mediterranean is the sea of all the countries that face it, and it (Malta) can't imagine that Italy will continue to face this giant phenomenon in solitude".

Malta said the rescue of the migrants, who set out from Libya, had been coordinated by Rome and was therefore the responsibility of Italy.

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Malta, for its part, has consistently refused to take in migrants, citing its small size and limited capacities.

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

The aid group said in a statement it had taken "good note" of Mr Salvini's stance, as reported earlier by Italian media.

The SOS Mediterranee said the migrants were picked up in six separate overnight operations in the central Mediterranean on Saturday.

"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. Right-wing politicians have accused charity boats operating off the coast of Libya of operating as "taxis" for migrants.

One boat found Sunday was carrying four bodies along with 49 migrants.

To the east, Libya's coast guard intercepted 152 migrants, including women and children, from two boats stopped in the Mediterranean off the coast of the western Zuwara district Saturday. Italy is the main entry for migrants crossing from North Africa to Europe.

The island nation has progressively reduced the number of migrants it has taken in over the past decade, from a high of 2,775 in 2008 to just 23 a year ago, according to UN statistics.

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