A pregnant woman's funeral was held on board a cargo ship yesterday as the diplomatic battle continued between Italy and Malta over which country is responsible for over 140 African migrants who have been stranded off Lampedusa since Thursday.

The situation on board the deteriorated yesterday as food and water supplies were running out on board the Turkish cargo ship which saved them. Meanwhile, the Italian and Maltese governments stood firm in their refusal to allow the immigrants to land.

Pinar Erdogdu, the owner of the ship, told The Sunday Times that everyone on board was falling ill and the ship needed help "immediately".

"There is no food or fresh water. They have been at sea for 10 days and the last three days they have been without food and water... they were drinking sea water... There aren't enough blankets for the people on board. It's a very dangerous situation."

A pregnant woman has died and two people were airlifted for medical treatment in Italy. A 16-year-old girl who had been in shock for seven hours could not be airlifted because the weather had worsened.

Ms Erdogdu said: "In a short time she will die. They need to come for her now.

"All other people are also sick. Epidemic disease deployment will start in a short time because there is a very bad smell on board, very bad."

Explaining that two of her crew members were also very ill, Ms Erdogdu said: "All the supplies are finished.

"Today, from the Italian coast guard we received food and water for only 25 people but this is not enough. There are 153 people, including the crew." At least 47 people require urgent medical treatment.

Contrary to some media reports, Ms Erdogdu denied that there had been a mutiny on board by the immigrants who claim to come from Nigeria, Somalia, Niger, Ghana and Liberia: "They're very grateful. But it's a tense situation. Everyone is sick, cold and dying."

The vessel was refused entry into Italian waters by the Italian authorities, who are insisting the migrants should be brought to Malta, which is responsible for the search and rescue region.

Malta, however, is insisting that under the terms of the international conventions it is signatory to the migrants must land at the nearest safe port, which in this case is Lampedusa.

Ms Erdogdu explained that the ship could only handle a 13 member crew and was instead loaded with 143 migrants.

She added that the crew still believed it should land the immigrants in Lampedusa, adding that the stand-off had already cost the company $350,000.

The Panama-flagged Pinar E, currently some 25 nautical miles off Lampedusa, picked up the immigrants 41 nautical miles off Lampedusa (114 miles from Malta) last Thursday.

Laura Boldrini, the UNHCR spokeswoman in Rome, described the situation on board the vessel as critical. She urged the Italian and Maltese authorities to realise that the consequences of delay could be catastrophic.

"They need fresh water... most of them are living off some water, biscuits and jam."

A military ship nearby was unable to shift any supplies because of the bad weather and a rescue helicopter was forced to turn back.

Ms Boldrini expressed concern that the political ping pong could deter fishermen and other mariners from offering assistance while out at sea. "If EU states can't find a solution and impose clear guidelines it's going to discourage rescue at sea - and this is very worrying," she said.

Asked who she believed should assume responsibility for the immigrants, she said: "Italy and Malta have different rules for the sea. Everyone's wrong, and everyone's right. But in the meantime we have to find a solution - at once."

AFM Commander Carmel Vassallo said Malta was only legally bound to coordinate the rescue of an operation in its search and rescue region and to transfer anybody rescued - be it illegal immigrants or fishermen - to the nearest port.

"We've applied these principles for 45 years. We cannot simply change them now... It seems that the Italians have been given directions to be difficult," Brig. Vassallo said, acknowledging that the situation could get worse.

He also said that at one point the Pinar was just 17 miles south of Lampedusa, with an Italian warship stationed close by, and yet the Italians refused to take them in.

The AFM twice offered the services of a rescue helicopter yesterday, but the Italians said they would not need it, Brig. Vassallo said.

Last night Foreign Minister Tonio Borg sought to ease the tension with neighbouring Italy.

He said: "This is a dispute between friends. The Italians should know that we are merely responsible for coordinating matters in our search and rescue region."

Asked whether he feared this incident could dent the good relations with Italy, he replied promptly: "No, it shouldn't."

But the statement made last Friday by Italian Home Affairs Minister Roberto Maroni was anything but conciliatory.

He accused Malta of dumping the immigrants on Italy and said he had asked EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot to intervene and persuade Malta to assume its responsibilities.

When contacted, a spokesman for Mr Maroni said the minister had no further comment.

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