Valletta and Rome have found themselves caught up in yet another war of words over migration, with the Maltese government issuing an official statement denying claims made by Italy’s Prime Minister on Wednesday morning.

Mr Conte told Italian senators that Malta should have been responsible for a group of migrants rescued at sea by an Italian naval vessel last month, echoing comments first made by his Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli last month.

The 171 people rescued by Italy’s Diciotti coast guard vessel were subsequently taken to the port of Catania but then denied permission to disembark for several days, with Italy drawing condemnation from across the EU for that decision.

Mr Conte’s claims drew a sharp response from the Maltese government, which insisted that the rescue was solely Italy’s responsibility under international law and that Malta’s offer to help the migrants “was refused”.

The migrants' boat, with 171 on board, was on the high seas at the time, Malta said, and could therefore not be intercepted using force. Italy’s navy had subsequently intercepted the boat just outside Italy's territorial waters, the Maltese government said.

Tensions between Malta and Italy over sea rescues stem from differing interpretations of international maritime law, with one country abiding by a 1979 Convention which requires people rescued at sea to be taken to the “nearest point of safety” and the other instead recognising a 2004 amendment which requires rescued people to be taken to a port belonging to the country whose Search and Rescue area they were rescued in.

In the Diciotti rescue case, Malta argued on Wednesday, the nearest place of safety was Lampedusa.

“If the Italian Government chooses to designate Lampedusa as not being safe, it must shoulder the burden of providing an alternative,” it added.

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