Italy yesterday lambasted Malta for being “just a spectator” to the exodus of immigrants from Libya seeking refuge in Europe, further stoking the simmering dispute between the two countries.

The Italian government also claimed it was gathering evidence that the Libyan government was behind the current crossings of irregular migration towards Europe.

The latest accusations against Malta were made by Italy’s Foreign Affairs Minister Franco Frattini during an interview published in the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera.

He said Italy had to report Malta to the EU as he claimed the island was not doing its part to save the lives of hundreds of immigrants crossing its vast search and rescue area (SAR).

“We had to report Malta as in many instances the Maltese authorities are just looking at the problem and not giving any help when immigrants are in Malta’s SAR waters,” Mr Frattini charged.

Insisting Italy was prepared to do all it could to save lives, Mr Frattini said the Italian government had ordered its rescue services to intervene and save lives in all circumstances, even in faraway seas and in areas which were not directly in its responsibility.

Brussels has not reacted to Italy’s accusations against Malta, saying only that the two countries should continue to collaborate on rescue missions in the Mediterranean.

Malta and Italy have been at loggerheads in the past years over the interpretation of international maritime rules connected with SAR operations.

While Malta maintains it is only responsible for coordinating search and rescue missions in its vast area – which spreads across the Mediterranean from Crete to just a few kilometres from Lampedusa – Italy contests this and says the island is responsible for taking all immigrants rescued in its SAR region.

Just a few days ago, an Italian NGO, Codacons, officially filed reports with the International Criminal Court and the International Court for Human Rights in The Hague asking them to investigate Malta’s alleged breach of international maritime rules. The Maltese government has already dismissed these allegations.

In his interview, Mr Frattini – a former European Commissioner responsible for Home Affairs – also upped his ante against Libya saying the Libyan regime was behind the current migration flow.

“We are gathering evidence that the Libyan regime is behind this wave of illegal immigration as a reaction against Europe on the Nato intervention. People arriving in Lampedusa from Libya are saying they were forced onto boats and that they had not paid anything to cross over to Europe,” he said.

According to Mr Frattini, if these allegations are true, there could be a case against Libya before the ICC for crimes against humanity.