Migrants remain at sea as Italy-Malta standoff intensifies

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More than 600 refugees and aid workers are stranded in a boat in the Mediterranean after both Malta and Italy refused to let the vessel dock.

"This is not an inhumane act", said Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, in charge of Italy's ports and coast guard.

Aid group 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. 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 worldwide conventions on the protection of human life".

The move by Italy's new Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, who is also head of the far-right League, represents an opening gambit to make good on his electoral promises to halt the flow of asylum seekers into the country.

In a statement issued Monday afternoon, the Spanish government said that "The prime minister has given instructions so that Spain can fulfil its worldwide humanitarian crisis commitments and has announced that the Aquarius will be welcomed into a Spanish port".

In a statement it said the Aquarius took on the migrants in global waters off Libya and rescue operations were coordinated by Italy.

The League promisied voters during the Italian general election that it would take a tough stance on immigration.

"Malta is not acting, France rejects them, and Europe doesn't care", Salvini wrote. "The people we saved were in a hard condition, at least 50 were at risk of drowning", he added. The rescue ship's crew itself pulled 229 migrants from the water or from traffickers' unseaworthy boats Saturday night, including 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women.

There is predictable outrage at the decision by Italy's new populist interior minister Matteo Salvini to shut the ports to NGO ships carrying migrants from North Africa, but truthfully no-one in Brussels, Berlin or Paris should be surprised it has come to this.

Not everyone in Italy agreed with the government action, and the mayors of a number of southern cities, including Naples, Palermo and Messina, said they would welcome the migrants.

"Our land has always been one of refuge, I don't know how you can send away 629 human lives", he added.

Naples is "ready, without funds, to save human lives", the mayor of Naples tweeted, calling Salvini a "heartless minister".

The Salvini gambit might be crude, against European Union and worldwide law, and an even offence against common decency, but it might also inject a dose of reality.

Italian police questioned the boat's captain for more than four hours, according to the NGO, and journalists aboard were asked to hand over video footage of the rescue operation, which took place on June 5. It is not possible for Malta to say "no" to every request for help.

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