Italy has no right to make migration demands on Malta - PM

NGO accused of breaking rules says human lives are being gambled

The vessel at the centre of the dispute.

The vessel at the centre of the dispute.

Updated 3.10pm with PM tweet

Italy was right to say a migrant vessel at the centre of a diplomatic spat had broken the rules, but it has no right to dictate to Malta that it should take it into its ports, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said on Saturday. 

It is the prime minister's first public intervention amid the latest saga which has left a group of 239 rescued migrants caught up in a legal wrangle between Italy and Malta. On Friday, Italy's right-wing deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini said Malta should take in the migrant vessel Lifeline and arrest its crew.

The showdown is taking place on the eve of an EU summit where leaders will be attempting to broker some form of agreement over the migration dilemma. 

In an interview on One Radio, Dr Muscat adopted the legalistic argument to defend his government's position not to take in the migrants' boat. 

He reiterated that the migrants were picked up between Libya and Lampedusa. The operation was initially handled by the Rome rescue centre, with the Libyan authority assuming responsibility of the SAR cases.

Dr Muscat said the NGO ignored the demands to transfer the migrants to the Libyan coastguard and instead started heading towards Italy. 

"Italy was right to say the boat disobeyed the rules but it was wrong to tell them to head to Malta instead. We're a sovereign country and nobody should dictate what we can and cannot do."

Read: Italy accuses Malta of being "inhumane" amid migrant boat showdown

Italy's transport minister described Malta's decision as "inhumane", 10 days after shutting its own ports to a migrant vessel.

Dr Muscat said the government was seeking legal advice about the matter, especially since it transpired that the Lifeline had been registered in the Netherlands as a pleasure boat and not a rescue vessel.

Meanwhile, the Armed Forces of Malta delivered supplies to the vessel.

The Lifeline is currently located some 40 miles south east off Malta.The Lifeline is currently located some 40 miles south east off Malta.

Merchant vessels being held hostage - NGO

A spokesman for the Lifeline told Times of Malta: "The conditions are so-so, especially after a long time on sea and the horrible conditions in Libya."

Earlier on Saturday, the Armed Forces said it had been called to carry out a medical evacuation from the MV Lifeline after having received a request to assist a person on board. But hours later, the prime minister tweeted to say that the crew said the evacuation was no longer needed. 

The AFM said it is also providing humanitarian supplies to the vessel.

Asked whether the vessel had asked to dock in Malta, the spokesman cryptically replied: "diplomats are in talks. We are waiting for the results."

In a statement, the NGO said it is unacceptable that again political statements are made at the expense of people in maritime distress and in direct violation of applicable guidelines.

"With the EU summit on migration taking place tomorrow, the European community is asked to stop the gambling with lives at sea and to provide a solution immediately. Again, civil society has to step in where states fail to take their responsibility. It is of highest priority and importance that the civil rescue fleet should not be made responsible for the very problem it is there to respond to. That now even merchant vessels are kept hostage in this responsibility vacuum is incomprehensible."