Italy's objections to accept illegal migrants were stalling the launch of this year's Frontex patrols in the Mediterranean, EU sources said.

The sources, close to the ongoing negotiations, insisted that Italy was objecting to take any of the illegal immigrants that could be plucked to safety from the sea during the Nautilus IV mission. It wanted all such migrants to be taken to Malta instead.

"We have been trying to convince Italy over the past weeks that the Frontex mission will have to follow international rules that clearly lay down that survivors have to be taken to the closest safe port," the sources said.

"However, Italy is still objecting to take to Lampedusa illegal immigrants rescued when the new mission starts. It is instead arguing they should all be taken to Malta as the host member state of this mission."

The sources said Malta was strongly objecting to Italy's arguments: "Malta is sticking to its position that this year's mission should abide by the rules of engagement already established in past missions. This means that when immigrants are found outside its territorial waters they would be picked up by the mission's assets and taken to the closest safe port as dictated by international rules".

A Frontex spokesman contacted by The Times in Warsaw kept mum over the issue, saying the EU agency did not want to make any negotiations through the media.

"Frontex does not announce the exact date of the launch of its operations. All I can say at this moment is that Operation Nautilus IV has not started. Frontex, together with the relevant stakeholders, is currently working on the finalisation of the operational plan," the spokesman said, confirming the delay.

The Maltese government also declined to comment.

A spokesman would only say that "technical discussions are still ongoing and we hope this year's Frontex mission will be able to start soon".

This is not the first time Italy has adopted such a stand in the run-up to Frontex coordinated anti-migration patrols. Two years ago, during the Romano Prodi government, Italy had first declined to take part in the Nautilus mission, claiming it was not interested in joining other member states as long as Libya was not involved. Then, following the personal intervention of then EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini, who today is Italy's Foreign Minister, the Italian government changed its position and participated.

Italy had also raised objections prior to last year's mission, claiming it did not want to be responsible for any illegal immigrants saved in the Libyan search and rescue area.

The issue was resolved following diplomatic interventions and it was agreed that, in Libya's absence, the rescued illegal immigrants would be taken to the closest safe haven.

Frontex's executive director Ilka Laitinen had said then that the international rules on division of responsibility in such missions were very clear.

"First and foremost, the main responsibility is of the country in whose search and rescue area the incident takes place.

"In the case where it is not possible for that country to admit such people, or is not willing (as in Libya's case), the second rule is that the immigrants have to be taken to the closest safe haven."

This year's Nautilus mission is the fourth anti-migration EU patrol operation to be coordinated by the EU's borders control agency Frontex in the Sicily-Malta-Libya region.

It was supposed to be the longest ever to be conducted by Frontex with a budget of over €10 million.

For the first time, a similar mission is also supposed to start in the Mediterranean on May 15, jointly held by Italy and Libya inside the North African country's territorial waters.

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