An Italian minister's suggestion to take on Malta's search and rescue area or a sizeable slice of it in return for rescued migrants was not favourable for Malta and was not on the cards, senior government sources told the Times of Malta.

Malta's search and rescue zone stretches across the Mediterranean, from off the Tunisian coast to near Greece, about 250,000 square kilometres, an area roughly the size of the UK.

The area is a hangover from the island’s time as a British naval base and has long been an issue of contention. In fact, back in 2005 Cabinet discussed a proposal to reduce it by up to 70 per cent.

Malta's search and rescue zone is huge.Malta's search and rescue zone is huge.

Later, in 2009, the government again briefly considered the possibility of shrinking the search and rescue area after the Italian government insisted that Malta give it up following about 140 migrants being stranded at sea for three days in a standoff.

The possibility, however, was quickly shot down, with the government saying it would not relinquish any of the area.

Italian Transport and Infrastructure Minister Danilo Toninelli said on Thursday that Malta should either assume responsibility for its search and rescue area or relinquish it to Italy.

Malta and Italy have been at loggerheads over a group of 629 migrants who were left stranded in international waters on a charity rescue ship after both countries refused to let them dock.

Mr Toninelli said that Malta received hefty funding to patrol its sizeable search and rescue area, which was, in fact, being patrolled by Italian vessels.

A spokesman for the Office of the Prime Minister said Mr Toninelli was “either misinformed or wants to stir a useless controversy.

Any funds received, he continued, were related to external border control under the EU system and had nothing to do with the search and rescue area. “It must also be noted that Italy receives millions of euros from this same fund,” he remarked.

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