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

The humanitarian ship Aquarius currently 43 nautical miles off Malta's coast carrying 629 migrants

The humanitarian ship Aquarius currently 43 nautical miles off Malta's coast carrying 629 migrants

Driven by violent conflicts and extreme poverty, tens of thousands of migrants attempt to reach southern Europe each year by crossing the Mediterranean in smugglers' boats.

Migrants disembark from the MV Aquarius, a search and rescue ship run in partnership between SOS Mediterranee and Medecins Sans Frontieres, after it arrived in Augusta on the island of Sicily, Italy, on January 30, 2018.

Italy's new interior minister Matteo Salvini threatened Sunday to close access to Italian ports for migrant rescue ships if Malta refuses to take hundreds of people saved by an NGO, reports said.

Malta said it had nothing to do with the rescue operation, opening the prospect of a diplomatic standoff between the two European Union allies.

"Malta takes in nobody. France pushes people back at the border, Spain defends its frontier with weapons".

Leader of the anti-migrant League party Mr Salvini, also deputy prime minister, tweeted yesterday: "Starting today, Italy, too, begins to say NO to the trafficking of human beings, NO to the business of clandestine immigration". Numbers have dropped dramatically in recent months, but there has been a rise in rescues in recent days, presenting Salvini with his first test as minister.

"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".

A Salvini aide didn't immediately respond for a request for details, only saying the news reports "aren't being denied".

SOS Mediterranee said the passengers on its ship, the Aquarius, included 400 people who were picked up by the Italian navy, the country's coastguard and private cargo ships and transferred.

It added that the Aquarius "is still waiting for definitive instructions regarding the port of safety".

"The island can not continue looking the other way when it comes to respecting worldwide conventions", said the statement, which was signed by Salvini and Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, who is nominally in charge of the ports. "RCC Malta in this case is neither the competent, nor the coordinating authority". "Malta will observe prevailing laws", its government said in a brief statement.

"Our sole objective is to bring the people we've rescued, in hard conditions yesterday, to a port of safety", the group said in a statement.

Charity boats operating off the Libyan coast have played an increasingly important role in rescuing migrants who often put to sea in flimsy inflatable boats not designed for the open sea.

He has criticised humanitarian organisations for providing what he has called a "taxi service" for migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya.

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