Spain offers to take migrant ship amid Italy-Malta standoff

Map showing Malta's SAR region, the migrant's rescue location, Lampedusa and Malta relative to the Aquarius path and location at 4.51pm on Sunday

Map showing Malta's SAR region, the migrant's rescue location, Lampedusa and Malta relative to the Aquarius path and location at 4.51pm on Sunday

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

Italy claimed that Malta should accept the Aquarius because Malta was the safest, closest port to the ship.

"Starting today, Italy, too, begins to say NO to the trafficking of human beings, NO to the business of clandestine immigration", Salvini tweeted Sunday.

"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. "Italy doesn't shrug off its responsibility when it comes to saving lives, but it asks that others do the same", Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, in charge of Italian ports and coast guard, said after the Spanish announcement. He has previously accused them of being in cahoots with people-smugglers. "Italy has stopped bowing down, it's now time to say no".

"Plan from MRCC (the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center) Rome is that rescued people will later be transferred on Italian ships before heading together to #Valencia", SOS Mediteranee said on Twitter.

This solution is happy for Italy, which maintains closure of its ports, and Spanish president, which resolves a humanitarian crisis that affects European migratory policy in full.

As the rhetoric intensified, the Aquarius remained on standby in the Mediterranean Sea with its 629 passengers, including 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women.

"The prime minister has given instructions for Spain to honour global commitments on humanitarian crises and announced that the country will receive the ship Aquarius", his office said in a statement.

The ship called Aquarius rescued around 230 migrants on Saturday and more than 400 were transferred to the ship by Italian military and merchant ships in the area.

Both Mr Muscat and new Italian premier Giuseppe Conte readily thanked Spain for the offer, with Mr Conte saying "it goes in the direction of solidarity". Valencia is three days' voyage for the Aquarius, while Italy and Malta are hours away.

"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.

Italy has been the main entry point for Europe-bound migrants since 2015, and even previous interior ministers - more moderate than Salvini - complained about insufficient help from European Union allies.

The migrants aboard the Aquarius were picked up from inflatable boats off the coast of Libya at the weekend, in six different rescue operations, according to the NGO SOS Méditerranée.

"Refusing to accept a ship carrying men, women, and children who have fled unspeakable abuses and survived a unsafe sea journey is simply inhumane", said Izza Leghtas, senior advocate for Europe at Refugees International.

Instead they were brutally rejected. Italy shouldn't have to shoulder the burden by itself, he added, when other European countries aren't doing their fair share.