The government has denied Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini's claims that it held talks with Italy over reducing Malta's search and rescue (SAR) area.

Foreign Minister Tonio Borg yesterday said in a news conference that the government's position had not changed since a Cabinet decision in April that Malta had no intention whatsoever of reducing its SAR area.

"Our search and rescue area is not for sale," he said.

Malta's SAR zone covers some 250,000 square kilometres spanning from Tunisia to Crete.

In an interview with leading Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Mr Frattini yesterday suggested that Italy would be pushing for an agreement with Malta on the reduction of the SAR area by the end of the year.

The Italian foreign minister's comments came in the wake of claims by five surviving Eritrean immigrants rescued off Lampedusa that 73 migrants on board the same dinghy died after spending almost 20 days lost at sea.

Mr Frattini said Malta did not have the necessary resources to patrol its area of responsibility and the incident would not have happened had an agreement over the SAR region been reached.

"We are prepared to increase our area of responsibility because we have the means to patrol the area. For quite some time we have showed our willingness, the last time at the beginning of summer," Mr Frattini said.

Dr Borg has denied any negotiations took place on the issue and insisted that the Italians had long been making demands to take over Malta's SAR area.

He took umbrage at Mr Frattini's comment that the incident would not have happened had there been an agreement on the SAR area.

"My friend, and I am not being ironic in calling him my friend, is factually incorrect. The first time the dinghy was spotted it was in the Libyan SAR area and so outside Malta or Italy's responsibility. Any agreement over the SAR area would have made no difference in this circumstance," Dr Borg said.

The massive SAR area is a relic of Malta's colonial past when it was controlled by the British.

According to international law, Malta's obligations are to coordinate rescue and assistance operations in its region and not necessarily perform those operations itself.

International law also states that anybody rescued has to be taken to the nearest safest port of call. In recent years Italy and Spain have been pushing for change within the International Maritime Organisation so that people rescued in a country's SAR area are taken to the coordinating country rather than the closest safe port of call.

Malta has opposed these moves and has not ratified the changes to the international treaty. It is widely believed that the position adopted by Italy and Spain is intended to pressure Malta into giving up its large SAR region.

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