Rescue ship stripped of flag amid dispute over migrants stranded at sea

The Aquarius

The Aquarius

Italy's transport minister has called on the United Kingdom to take responsibility for 141 people rescued by a ship sailing under the flag of the British territory of Gibraltar.

The Aquarius, run by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders, picked up the migrants off the coast of Libya on Friday.

The people rescued told the crew that several ships passed them by without offering assistance, according to SOS Mediterranee.

Almost three-quarters of those rescued originate from Somalia and Eritrea.

The new government's closed-door policy led to more than 600 people on the same ship being stranded at sea for nine days in June before Spain's socialist prime minister Pedro Sanchez offered to let it dock in Valencia.

The NGO said on Monday that both Malta and Italy had denied the vessel permission to disembark its passengers. Most of the 141 migrants are from Somalia and Eritrea and they include 67 unaccompanied minors.

Malta has always insisted that it stood by the worldwide convention, which stipulated that people should be disembarked at the closest, safest port.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is also one of the country's two deputy prime ministers, also took to Twitter on Monday to say that the Aquarius "can go wherever it wants, [but] not to Italy".

In a statement the Maltese government said the rescue made by the Aquarius took place off the Libyan coast, closer to Libya, Tunisia and Italy (Lampedusa) in an operation which was coordinated by the Libyan authorities.

The group said many reported they had been held in inhumane conditions in Libya.

At a regular briefing for journalists in Brussels, Tove Ernst, the European Commission's spokeswoman on migration, said: "There is a possibility that the flag state, that there could a case for the flag state to be responsible".

European Union border agency Frontex said on Monday it counted 73,500 "irregular border crossings" into the bloc so far this year via the sea and the Western Balkans route, more than 40 percent fewer than in the first seven months of 2017.

Due to pressure from Italy and Malta, most charity ships are no longer patrolling off the coast of Libya. The migrants will be brought to Malta in the afternoon, sources said.

"What is of utmost importance is that the survivors are brought to a place of safety without delay, where their basic needs can be met and where they can be protected from abuse".

On Monday, Malta's armed forces said that it rescued 114 migrants from a rubber dinghy taking on water 53 nautical miles south of the Mediterranean island.

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