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Malta and France resolve latest Aquarius migrant ship impasse

AFP file photo

The 58 migrants aboard the Aquarius rescue ship will be taken to Malta and from there to four other EU countries, the government said on Tuesday, in a bid to defuse the latest row over the fate of people rescued in the Mediterranean.

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The migrants will "disembark in international waters", Prime Minister Joseph Muscat tweeted from the UN General Assembly in New York.

They will be taken to Malta and "immediately redistributed" to four European countries, a government spokesman said, amid a brewing crisis over their fate.

"The operation will take place as soon as logistically possible," the spokesman said of the migrants rescued off the coast of Libya by the ship run by charity SOS Mediterranee.

Portugal said earlier that it would take in 10 of the migrants "in a united and joint manner with Spain and France" although Paris and Madrid have yet to confirm their role in the deal.

The NGO had said the Aquarius was heading for Marseille, "its only option" after Italy's populist government refused the Aquarius access to its ports.

But the French government had signalled it was reluctant to welcome the vessel, saying it should dock at the nearest safe port to its current location near conflict-torn Libya.

Malta's announcement came after talks with the French government, Muscat said.

The Aquarius will then head to Marseilles "to rectify its stateless position," the government said, after Panama announced on Saturday it would revoke the boat's flag registration following an Italian complaint.

A similar crisis was defused in August when five different countries took in migrants the Aquarius had picked up during the treacherous Mediterranean crossing.

Migrant 'taxi service'?

The Aquarius was at the heart of a blazing diplomatic row in June when it became stranded with more than 600 migrants onboard following a refusal by Italy and Malta to take it in.

It has since been repeatedly turned away by Italy and been forced to stop in Malta and Spain after missions in recent months.

Under a previous deal reached in August, 141 migrants onboard the Aquarius were distributed among France, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain.

Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has vowed to block the Aquarius permanently from his country's ports, accusing it of offering a "taxi service" for migrants from Libya to Europe.

His government says Italy has had enough of migrants arriving by boat, with more than 700,000 landing on its shores since 2013.

The numbers have dropped sharply since their peak in 2015, but the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, has warned that the death rate during Mediterranean crossings has soared.

At least 1,730 people have died trying to make the treacherous crossing in flimsy boats this year, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The Aquarius has become a symbol of bitter divisions in Europe over how to share responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of people arriving by boat since 2015.

French President Emmanuel Macron has clashed with the Italian government over its blocking of rescue ships, accusing it of "cynicism and irresponsibility".

He faced criticism at home for not offering safe haven to the Aquarius after it first became stranded in June, although France eventually offered asylum to about 80 of the rescued migrants.

His aide on Tuesday blasted Rome for blocking a new permanent solution to manage the docking and distribution of migrants rescued by charity boats.

"It's not moving forward because those who criticise the lack of French or European solidarity, starting with Italy, don't want a permanent, durable mechanism," the aide said

(AFP)

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