An Italian coastguard ship carrying about 300 migrants rescued off the Tunisian coast was refused entry into Malta yesterday and instead headed towards Sicily. Army sources said the migrants were rescued by the Italian coastguard in the early hours of Sunday off Lampedusa, close to Tunisia in the search and rescue area coordinated by Malta.

A Nato official at the command centre in Naples, said the boat was first spotted by an Italian aircraft about 80 kilometres south of Lampedusa at about 6 p.m. on Saturday. The aircraft informed Nato command but, since it did not have any ships in the area, it informed the Maltese authorities because the boat was in Malta’s search and rescue region.

Sources said the Armed Forces of Malta dispatched a patrol boat to the rescue area just after midnight on Saturday but the Italian coastguard got there first.

The migrants, who were fleeing Libya, were transferred from the boats they were on onto the Commandante Borsini, which was not under Nato command. It sailed towards Malta but the Maltese authorities refused to allow the Italian vessel to disembark the migrants on the island arguing that, according to international law, they should have been taken to the nearest safe port of call, which would have been Tunisia or Lampedusa.

For some time the warship was outside Maltese territorial waters to the north of Gozo. It then sailed in a northeasterly direction towards Sicily watched at a distance by an army patrol boat, the sources said.

This is the second incident in as many months in which rescued migrants were refused entry into Malta. A month ago, Malta barred a Spanish warship under Nato command from disembarking the 111 migrants it had rescued insisting that the rescue operation had occurred closer to Lampedusa and Tunisia.

The good weather over the past few days has led to a surge in the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Libya with close to 2,000 disembarking on Lampedusa in just 36 hours.

The Italian media reported that just after 2 p.m. yesterday, about 404 migrants escaping the Libyan warzone disembarked at Lampedusa. These included 45 women and 13 children. The migrants were being transferred to Sicily on board a ferry boat to ease the pressure on the limited facilities in Lampedusa.

Since the start of the year, more than 11,000 Africans fleeing conflicts in North Africa have landed in southern Italy.

Since the start of the Libyan crisis, 1,453 migrants in six boats arrived in Malta, the last group reaching the island in May.

According to the Catholic aid group Sant’Egidio, at least 1,820 migrants from North Africa, most from sub-Saharan countries, have drowned this year in the Mediterranean in their bid to reach Europe even though the death toll may be higher.

The risky sea journey is often made in overcrowded fishing boats.

In a statement last night, the Armed Forces of Malta said that at about 6.47 p.m. on Saturday, the Italian rescue authorities informed them that an Italian aircraft had sighted a wooden boat adrift and laden with some 300 persons onboard, 55 nautical miles from Lampedusa.

The Rescue Coordination Centre at Luqa Barracks issued requests to any nearby merchant vessel to assist. The AFM also instructed P-51 Protector class patrol vessel to proceed to the last reported location of the wooden boat.

Help from Tunisian and Nato assets was requested, but none were reported in the area to provide a timely response.

MRCC Rome also reported that its own assets in the area were busy with other rescue cases. Given the reported number of persons onboard the sighted boat, P-61 was also placed on standby, ready to sail at a moment’s notice, the AFM added.

At 4.04 a.m. yesterday, MRCC Rome confirmed that four Italian patrol boats had intercepted the migrant vessel and had taken the 334 migrants onboard their boats. The patrol boats then proceeded north to rendezvous with the Italian warship ITS Borsini 33 miles south off Lampedusa where a mid-sea transfer took place.

At 6.56 a.m., the Italian authorities declared Lampedusa as “not a safe place” for the rescued migrants to go ashore given the previous night’s number of landings of rescued persons, and redirected the Borsini towards Malta.

RCC Malta confirmed it was ready to assist in any case of those who required urgent medical care, however, it refused the Borsini permission to enter Maltese territorial waters, since Lampedusa was the closest safe land for the migrants.

At 4.50 p.m., MRCC Rome informed the AFM that the Borsini was proceeding to Taranto, Italy.