450 migrants stranded at sea as Italy, Malta dig heels in

Italian officials have considered sending the migrants back to Libya. AFP

The fishing vessel contained 450 migrants and was reportedly heading towards a tiny island off Sicily.

Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is leading a high-profile campaign to exclude humanitarian rescue ships from Italian ports and has said the migrants will not be allowed to land in Italy.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is trying to find countries willing to take in some 450 migrants rescued from an overcrowded ship in the Mediterranean on Saturday, a source at the premier's office said.

The ministry claims that Malta took charge of the operation and asked Italy for "naval help" while not sending any of its own vessels "capable of providing assistance" to the area.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who has forced migration to the top of Europe's agenda by refusing to let rescue boats dock at Italian ports, vowed to remain firm Saturday as he created yet another standoff with hundreds of migrants stranded at sea.

Responding to critics, Salvini said that everything he has done in his first 43 days on the job has been aimed at the security of the Italian people.

'We already have given, you understand'.

Salvini was apparently referring to the costs that Italy has incurred in the last few years caring for some 600,000 migrants who were rescued at sea and taken to Italian shores.

The boats, which are now in Italian waters, had initially set sail from Libya in a single wooden vessel which was identified early Friday while passing through waters under Malta's jurisdiction.

Italian prosecutors are investigation the alleged threats.

But the 67 migrants on board were not immediately allowed to disembark.

Salvini's refusal to allow the ship to dock in Italy comes after the decision Thursday to allow 67 people to disembark an Italian coastguard ship that had docked at the Sicilian port of Trapani after a row that caused friction within the country's anti-establishment coalition government.

Salvini insists that the Libyan coast guard deal with migrants in waters off the largely lawless North African country.

Two African migrants were escorted off the Diciotti Thursday night by Italian police.

The other migrants, including young children and women then came down the gangway to be taken to a centre for identification.

Conte said he had spent the day in contact with his 27 European Union peers, reminding them that they had agreed at their end-June summit on the need to share the burden of dealing with the migrant influx.

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