Twenty-six illegal immigrants are floating in limbo some 87 miles south of Malta after they were rescued by a Spanish trawler, in an incident which could spark off a diplomatic rift.

The Maltese authorities have made it clear to the owner of the Spanish boat it was not prepared to take in the immigrants who, Malta insists, were picked up well within the Libyan search and rescue area.

The Armed Forces of Malta said they would continue monitoring the ongoing status of the Spanish-registered tug boat that had picked up the migrants on Saturday.

The incident has echoes of the Francisco y Catalina incident last summer where the vessel remained stranded for a week with 51 immigrants on board after Malta refused to take them in on grounds that they were not rescued in territorial waters.

The issue had been resolved when Spain, Andorra, Libya, Italy and Malta agreed to take their share of the migrants.

A Malta government spokesman gave a rundown of the events leading to this latest impasse.

At 12.30 p.m. on Saturday, the Maltese authorities were informed by both the Spanish and Italian rescue coordination centres that a Spanish tug boat had taken on board a number of immigrants in Libyan waters.

Given that the operation took place in Libyan waters and the tug boat was Spanish, the Maltese authorities immediately asked the Libyan authorities to coordinate the assistance.

Eventually, the Spanish tugboat started approaching the Maltese search and rescue area and the local authorities at once informed the tugboat crew that the immigrants could not be transferred to Maltese waters.

The Spanish tugboat informed the Maltese authorities that an Italian boat would take over the immigrants from the tugboat. At about 7.30 p.m., the Spanish Rescue Centre asked the Maltese authorities to assist the immigrants on the Spanish tugboat.

The Maltese authorities informed Spain that according to the Spanish tugboat personnel, an Italian boat was going to assume responsibility of the immigrants. However, at 10 p.m., the Spanish tugboat informed the Maltese authorities that, in fact, no Italian ship would take the immigrants.

In the meantime, another 27 illegal immigrants rescued by an Italian vessel late on Saturday after they held on to a Maltese-owned tuna pen for nearly 24 hours, arrived in Lampedusa yesterday.

As Malta and Libya shifted the problem onto each other, a Maltese boat refused to take the immigrants on board for "security reasons".

Contacted by The Times yesterday, proprietor Charles Azzopardi said the four fishermen steering his boat could not risk taking 24 persons on board.

"As a Maltese, I'm prepared to assist people, but there's a limit to everything. What if these 24 strong men rebelled and tried to assume control of the boat?" he asked, admitting that the immigrants' lives were at stake.

A government spokesman yesterday pointed out that the Prime Minister and the government expect that everybody provides assistance whenever there is danger of loss of life.

The issue was resolved when the Italian military stepped in. The immigrants, from Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon, had left Libya eight days ago, and are all reportedly in good condition.

Initially, it was thought that the immigrants could have been on board the vessel of 57 Eritreans, which disappeared last Monday, shortly after it was traced by the AFM.

The issue of illegal immigration has once again been propelled to the top of the national agenda after a series of landings during the past week.

The government spokesman said the Prime Minister intends to raise the issue in "all appropriate fora".

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