Migrants on stranded vessel to be taken to Spain

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Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on Sunday refused permission to a rescue vessel carrying 629 refugees to dock at the country's ports.

"People are in distress, are running out of provisions and need help quickly", the United Nations refugee agency said, urging governments to set aside political considerations.

Spain's new Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez stepped in, offering the boat safe harbor in the eastern port city of Valencia.

"The rescues will continue and it is crucial that European countries talk amongst themselves to find acceptable solutions" to bring to shore migrants stranded in the Mediterranean, she said.

Malta and the new populist government in Italy each refused to take the migrants in, accusing one another of failing to meet their obligations.

As of Monday morning, the Aquarius was circling in worldwide waters off Malta after the Italian maritime coordination centre in Rome ordered the vessel to stay put (see map). Officials in Valencia said they expected the ship to arrive in three to four days, depending on when they depart and weather conditions.

"Italy can not accept hypocritical lessons from countries that have preferred to look the other way on immigration", the new populist government said in statement initially reported by Italian media and then confirmed by government representatives to AFP.

Matteo Salvini
Matteo Salvini

Conte said Sunday that Rome had sent two patrol ships with doctors on board "ready to intervene and ensure the health of anyone on board the Aquarius who might have the need".

"Italy can not accept hypocritical lessons from countries that have always preferred to turn their backs when it comes to immigration", Conte said in a statement.

The U.S. Sixth Fleet, which is based in Naples, Italy, said in a brief statement to The Associated Press that the USNS Trenton on Tuesday "rendered assistance to mariners in distress that it encountered while conducting routine operations in the Mediterranean Sea".

Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat tweeted his gratitude to Spain, saying Italy had broken worldwide rules and caused a standoff.

'A European issue' Malta and Italy both thanked Spain for stepping up, but maintained their dispute over who was responsible. "The island can not continue looking the other way when it comes to respecting worldwide conventions", read the Italian government's statement signed by Salvini and Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli.

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

The aid group said in a statement it had taken "good note" of Mr Salvini's stance, as reported earlier by Italian media. "I've had enough." The Sea Watch still did not have any migrants on board, spokesman Ruben Neugebauer said.

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