Italy threatens to block migrant ships in row with Malta

New minister reported to have said he will close Italian ports to rescue boats if Malta refuses to take migrants

FILE - In this Monday, May 14, 2018 file photo, Leader of the League party, Matteo Salvini, addresses the media after meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella, at the Quirinale presidential palace, in Rome. The first group of migrants to arrive in Italy since a populist government took office is at the center of a spat between Italy's new interior minister and fellow EU member Malta. Some 230 African migrants landed in Calabria on Saturday after receiving authorization from the Interior Ministry. But before their ship docked, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini lashed out at Malta for allegedly denying the vessel permission to port. (Riccardo Antimiani/ANSA via AP)

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

La Repubblica newspaper reported that Mr Salvini had sent a letter to the Maltese authorities saying he would "be forced to close Italy's ports" if the 629 migrants saved by French NGO SOS Mediterranee weren't allowed to land at Malta's capital Valletta.

According to the daily Corriere Della Sera, the letter describes Valletta as the "most secure port" and the boat should dock there.

Italy’s interior ministry told AFP it was still trying to confirm the existence of the letter.

A spokesman for the Maltese government told AFP it “had not received communication from Salvini so far”, but that “Malta was neither the co-ordinating nor the competent authority” in the rescue.

The spokesman said it took place in the Libyan search and rescue area and was headed up by the rescue co-ordination centre in Rome, meaning Malta has no legal obligation to take in the migrants.

SOS Mediterranee said its Aquarius rescue vessel was still at sea and awaiting instructions about a secure port at which to land.

“Our sole objective is to bring the people we’ve rescued, in difficult conditions yesterday, to a port of safety,” the group said in a statement.

The migrants were rescued by the Aquarius in six separate night-time operations in the central Mediterranean on Saturday.

The French organisation said that among those saved and brought on board are 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 small children and seven pregnant women.

Mr Salvini, who is also deputy prime minister, has continued with his anti-migrant rhetoric since taking charge of the interior ministry, asking on Friday for Nato to defend Italy, which he says is “under attack from the south”.

His comments came after another spat with Malta following its reported refusal to come to the aid of another rescue ship Seefuchs, which was stranded with 126 migrants on board due to violent seas until it was allowed to dock in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo on Saturday.

“If anyone thinks I won’t move a muscle while we have another summer of landings, landings and more landings, well that’s not what I’m going to do,” Mr Salvini said.

The same day Italian authorities held the migrant rescue boat Sea-Watch 3 for 12 hours after it brought 232 people to Reggio Calabria, on the south-western tip of the mainland.

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.

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.

Sea-Watch said it requested help from the coastguard in Malta to send boats to aid the rescue mission, but Malta refused.