Why Italy has closed its ports to a migrant rescue ship

Muscat said he told Conte "that Malta is acting in full conformity with its worldwide obligations".

"Nevertheless, without prejudice to its position, and in conformity with its policy throughout the past years, Malta has always been willing, where possible, to carry out emergency medical evacuations of persons requiring urgent medical care for humanitarian reasons".

The Maltese government, however, was not moved.

"The boat is now heading north towards a secure port", SOS Mediterranee tweeted on Sunday without specifying its destination, though virtually every such boat over the past five years has ended up in Italy. "RCC Malta in this case is neither the competent, nor the coordinating authority".

Italy's new interior minister Matteo Salvini had threatened to close access to Italian ports for migrant rescue ships if Malta refused to take the migrants on board.

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.

Migrants on board the rescue vessel Aquarius are unaware of the ongoing diplomatic standoff between Malta and Italy over where they should disembark, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres.

The Aquarius and its passengers were caught up in a crackdown promoted by the right-wing partner in Italy's new populist government, which has vowed to stop the country from becoming the "refugee camp of Europe". "The people we saved were in a hard condition, at least 50 were at risk of drowning", he added.

But Muscat, "while comprehending the situation", rebuffed him, Conte said in a Facebook post late Sunday.

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"We want to show that we were a very open port and now the European Union needs to take responsibility and it has to do it now".

Salvini pointed to Malta's unwillingness in accusing Europe as a whole of leaving Italy on its own to deal with the refugee crisis.

"From now also Italy begins to say NO to the traffic of human beings, NO to the business of illegal immigration".

Mayors in Naples, Messina, Reggio Calabria, and Palermo stood against the poll-topping, recently installed Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini Sunday after he said the migrant ship Aquarius would be turned away from Italy, reports Italy's Il Giornale.

"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 (of migration) in solitude", the ministers said.

Sea-Watch said police also questioned some of the rescued migrants who, after being processed by the authorities, are likely to end up in reception centres. The Rome-based rescue coordination center gave the instructions.

Mr Salvini's stance could herald the eventual closing of all Italian ports to NGO vessels with migrants on board, the Italian press speculated.

One Aquarius crew member, Alessandro Porro, told Italian news channel Sky TG24 that they desperately needed to know which port to go to.

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