Maltese authorities yesterday denied permission to a Spanish trawler to bring 50 illegal immigrants to Malta.

The Armed Forces yesterday afternoon dispatched provisions and the AFM doctor, accompanied by a Spanish diplomat, to the illegal immigrants, who were rescued by the vessel, the AFM said yesterday.

The Melita II SAR launch reached the Spanish trawler as it stood 18 nautical miles off the island. The army doctor examined a woman and a girl, who needed no further medical assistance. The Spanish diplomat helped with translating. The operation lasted about three hours.

Reliable sources told The Sunday Times that at 4 a.m. yesterday, the AFM Rescue Co-ordination Centre received a phone call from their Madrid counterparts, who had been in contact with the Spanish vessel, Francesco Catalina, 100 miles southeast of Malta and requesting permission to enter a Maltese port with 50 "recovered" persons on board.

The Maltese authorities denied permission.

Foreign Minister Michael Frendo told The Sunday Times yesterday evening: "We are absolutely adamant, in the current circumstances when the vessel in not in any imminent danger, that it is unacceptable that it should bring these illegal immigrants to Malta. The immigrants were picked up at a point where Malta was not the closest land territory and fully outside our search and rescue zone."

The Spanish vessel's movements were last night being monitored by an AFM patrol boat, which was on station to obstruct it from entering Maltese territorial waters. The vessel last night stood 14 nautical miles off Malta, where the immigrants were able to make contact with relatives by phone.

Meanwhile, another group of illegal immigrants - 18 men and six women - were brought to Malta after they were rescued by the Armed Forces yesterday when their boat got into difficulties. The police have launched an investigation into the case.

Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi told Parliament last week that there are currently 1,031 illegal immigrants at Malta's open centres. Costs so far this year have totalled Lm320,423.

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