European Union urges Italy, Malta to resolve ship standoff

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A private rescue ship carrying 629 migrants remained at sea Sunday evening after more than a day of not receiving permission to dock in either Italy or the small Mediterranean island nation of Malta.

Matteo Salvini, Italy's Interior Minister and Northern League party leader chose to refuse docking to "Aquarius" and redirect the vessel to the Island of Malta, apparently in line with his election promises.

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said he personally contacted Malta's prime minister, Joseph Muscat, to "explicitly at least take on the human assistance of persons in difficulty aboard the Aquarius". Malta has refused the ship entry, insisting it was abiding by worldwide law.

"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.

The Maltese authorities have been insisting that since the rescue happened in the Libyan search and rescue area and was coordinated from Rome, Malta is neither the coordinating authority nor has the competence to settle this issue, thus it would not take in the migrants and asylum seekers. "Malta is neither the competent nor the coordinating authority in this case", the Maltese government said in a statement.

Italy has had to deal with hundreds of thousands of migrants in recent years coming via Libya to reach Europe.

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

SOS Mediterranean spokeswoman Mathilde Auvillain told The Associated Press the ship was "heading north following instructions received after the rescues and transfers" Saturday night.

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The Mayor of Palermo, one of those cities keen to defy Italy's new populist, anti-establishment left-right coalition government, caught headlines with his remarks when he said of his decision to open the port: "Palermo in ancient Greek meant "complete port".

"My aim is to guarantee a peaceful life for these youths in Africa and for our children in Italy", he said, using the Twitter hashtag "We are shutting the ports".

He tweeted: #Chiudiamoiporti. "We're closing the ports".

Survivors rescued from the Mediterranean by the Aquarius, which is operated by the Medecins Sans Frontieres and SOS Mediterranee charities.

"Saving lives at sea is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp is not", Salvini said on Facebook on Monday.

The migrants had been rescued during a series of operations Saturday by Italian maritime ships, cargo vessels and the Aquarius itself.

"It is our obligation to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a safe port to these people, as such meeting with the obligations of International Law", said Sánchez in a press release made public on Monday.

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