Italy, Malta urged to let refugee ship dock

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French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday accused Italy of "cynicism and irresponsibility" over its refusal to take in hundreds of migrants stranded on a rescue ship in the Mediterranean, a government spokesman said.

The 629 migrants on board include 134 children and seven pregnant women, NGOs operating the boat said.

Around 600,000 people are believed to have reached Italy by boat from Africa since the start of the migrant crisis five years ago, with as many as half a million estimated to still be in the country. "Italy has stopped bowing down, it's now time to say no".

More than 600 people are stuck aboard the ship Aquarius, run by a French charity, which is now waiting between Malta and Italy while the two countries row over who should take responsibility.

Malta and Italy thanked Spain for stepping up, but maintained their dispute over who was responsible.

Media captionOn a visit to Sicily, Matteo Salvini said Italy must increase its deportations of migrants.

The charity said the group of mainly sub-Saharan Africans were picked up in six different rescue operations off the coast of Libya and included hundreds who were plucked from the sea by Italian naval units and then transferred to the Aquarius. But the government of Malta also refused, and as a result the Aquarius was left with no place to dock.

"Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat thanked Sanchez and said Italy had "(broken) worldwide rules and caused a standoff". "Malta will be sending fresh supplies to the vessel. This is a European issue".

Conte said he was due to discuss the situation further with Salvini and other Italian government ministers.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, which is operating the Aquarius alongside SOS Mediterranne, urged a rethink.

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"There is an urgent humanitarian imperative here", added Vincent Cochetel, the United Nations refugee agency special envoy for the Central Mediterranean.

European Union leaders in December had set an end-of-June deadline for an overhaul of rules to create a permanent mechanism to deal with migrants in the event of a new emergency.

The ship had sailed north towards Italy but Mr Salvini said it should go to neighbouring Malta instead. "It's common sense. We ask that all of Europe assume responsibility for such a delicate and important issue as is immigration", he said.

"We are talking about people".

Italy's Coast Guard said in a statement that two Italian ships would take on board some of the migrants, easing conditions on the overcrowded Aquarius.

"In the Italian case, turning this into a political weapon is is clear that Europe must act more wisely, but we can not let these people die at sea", he said. "The coastguard and navy can continue to save lives, but other countries need to keep giving us a hand".

The move was widely condemned by humanitarian groups, with reports that mayors across southern Italy, including in Palermo and Naples, had pledged to defy Salvini's move and open up their city's ports to the ship. "They manifestly go against global rules, and risk creating a unsafe situation for all those involved", Mr Muscat said on Twitter.

The government of Spain's Valencia region says it is expecting ships carrying 629 migrants who were rejected by Italy and Malta to call "in three or four days" at its port. But the new Italian government, keen to show its racism is honest, would not allow the ship to dock.

"We will always save human lives, but Malta is the alarm bell for a Europe that must change", he wrote on Twitter. "I've had enough." The Sea Watch still did not have any migrants on board, spokesman Ruben Neugebauer said.