Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and its partner SOS Méditerranée have been forced to end operations by their search and rescue vessel Aquarius.

The organisations said in a statement that, over the past two months, with people continuing to flee by sea along the world’s deadliest migration route, the Aquarius remained in port, unable to carry out its humanitarian work.

The organisations blamed harassment from Italy and other countries.

"This is a sombre day," Nelke Mander, Medecins sans Frontieres's general director, said.

"The end of our operations onboard the Aquarius will mean more death in the sea, deaths that are avoidable and without witnesses."

The decision to moor the Aquarius is the result of a "constant denigration, smearing and obstruction campaign led" by the Italian government and supported by other European countries, the NGOs said.

In September, 58 migrants who had been on the ship were disembarked in MaltaAquarius had rescued the migrants in two groups off Libya and was refused entry by Italy, France and Malta.

Malta accepted the migrants after agreements were reached for them to be sent to Portugal, Spain, France and Germany.

Earlier, the ship, which was in the news throughout summer, lost its Panama registration soon after the start of its latest rescue missions, after having previously lost its Gibraltar flag.

It was refused entry by Malta, Italy and France in June and eventually disembarked some 600 migrants in Valencia.

In August it was allowed in Malta only after a standoff during which arrangements were made for its 150 migrants to be transferred to other countries.

'Ludicrous' accusations

The Aquarius was recently accused of trafficking waste and criminal activities - accusations that are "ludicrous", Medecins sans Frontieres said.

It said Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini had repeatedly closed Italian ports to the Aquarius, forcing it to sail for days with dozens of rescued migrants aboard to find a port in other countries.

Mr Salvini had also said the rescue ships like Aquarius encouraged people to take the sea to cross towards Europe.

Europe has seen the biggest influx of people for decades in the past three years, many fleeing conflicts and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. Sea arrivals have dropped sharply, but the political aftershocks are still reverberating.

In a tweet, MSF said that while the International Organisation for Migration claimed that the most deadly month of 2018 was when no NGO ships were at sea, politicians were now claiming that the end of Aquarius operations would lead to fewer departures and deaths.

The ship was commissioned in February 2016 and has rescued almost 30,000 people in international waters off Libya, Malta and Italy. She has remained moored on Marseilles since October 4, after transferring 58 migrants on Malta during her last mission.

Medecins sans Frontieres estimates 2,133 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 2018, mainly embarking from Libya.