Spanish PM offers to take boat with 629 migrants - including 123 unaccompanied children - following stand-off between Malta and Italy
The Aquarius boat, which has 629 migrants on board, that has been at the centre of an international row today will dock in the city of Valencia, the Spanish prime minister’s office said.
A private rescue ship carrying the migrants remained on a northward course in the Mediterranean Sea after more than a day of not receiving permission to dock in either Italy or Malta.
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.
The rescue ship's crew pulled 229 migrants from the water or from traffickers' un-seaworthy boats on Saturday night, including 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women.
The Aquarius and its passengers were caught up in a crackdown swiftly implemented 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".
"Starting today, Italy, too, begins to say NO to the trafficking of human beings, NO to the business of clandestine immigration," Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-migrant League party, tweeted on Sunday.
Mr Salvini and Transportation Minister Danilo Toninelli, who is part of the 5-Star Movement faction in the new government, said in a joint statement that it was Malta's responsibility to "open its ports for the hundreds of the rescued on the NGO ship Aquarius".
"The island can't continue to turn the other way," the ministers said. "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 in solitude."
The Maltese government, however, was not moved. It said in a statement that the Aquarius took on the passengers in waters controlled by Libya and where Italian authorities in Rome coordinate search-and-rescue operations.
The Maltese Rescue Coordination Centre "is neither the competent nor the coordinating authority," the statement said.
SOS Mediterranee spokeswoman Mathilde Auvillain said the ship was "heading north following instructions received after the rescues and transfers" on Saturday night. The Rome-based rescue coordination centre gave the instructions.
The aid group said in a statement it had taken "good note" of Mr Salvini's stance, as reported earlier by Italian media. It added that the Aquarius "is still waiting for definitive instructions regarding the port of safety".
SOS Mediterranee said Maltese search-and-rescue authorities were contacted by their Italian counterparts "to find the best solution for the well-being and safety" of the people on the ship.
The United Nations says at least 785 migrants have died crossing the sea so far this year.