The European Commission has distanced itself from comments by a former Italian MEP who accused Malta of acting "scandalously" in last April's incident involving a dispute over a Turkish cargo ship, which saved 142 illegal immigrants off the coast of Lampedusa.

The incident, which had made international headlines, had led to a stand-off between Malta and Italy on which of them should take final responsibility for the illegal immigrants aboard the Pinar E.

Answering a parliamentary question by Sicilian MEP Nello Musumeci, EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot said: "In the absence of applicable Community rules, the Commission does not pronounce itself on the respective application by Italy or Malta of their international obligations under the search and rescue regime. Accordingly, the Commission cannot in any way associate itself with the assertions made by the Honourable Member in his written question".

Since tabling his questions Mr Musumeci has lost his seat in the EU Chamber.

In a harshly worded parliamentary question, the former mayor of Catania had asked the European Commission to "condemn" Malta and increase Italy's funds for illegal immigration to "make good for Malta's failures". He accused Malta of failing in its international obligations.

Repeating the accusations made by the Italian Home Affairs Minsiter Roberto Maroni a few days after the tanker incident, Mr Musumeci claimed there had been 670 instances in which Malta failed to provide assistance and Italian airborne and naval rescue services had been forced to step in.

Mr Barrot would only say that the Commission regretted the delays in the disembarkation of those rescued by the Pinar E last April.

"The Commission had urged all the parties to cooperate for the speedy resolution of that incident," Mr Barrot reminded Mr Musumeci.

The Pinar E had rescued the illegal immigrants from international waters in Malta's search and rescue area, 41 miles from Lampedusa and 65 miles from Malta.

Italy had at first refused to take the illegal immigrants arguing it was Malta's responsibility because they were picked up from its SAR. However, Malta insisted that the rescued people had to be taken to the closest safe port according to international law.

The incident was resolved following discussions between the Italian and Maltese Prime Ministers and Italy accepted to take the immigrants.

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