Lawyers of a Spanish NGO whose vessel was impounded in Sicily after a rescue operation said Malta did not offer to take the 218 rescued migrants despite being the “closest safe port”.

In written submissions to a court in Catania, in response to preliminary accusations that Proactiva Open Arms ignored international obligations to disembark saved migrants in Malta, its lawyers argued that was not possible.

Acknowledging that the ship had stopped in Malta to disembark a mother and her three-month-old baby who required urgent medical help, the lawyers noted that at no point did Malta offer to accept the rest of the rescued migrants on board.

“Malta is the only EU member state that does not accept the international law principle that it has to host all those rescued in its search and rescue area. This is why we had to proceed to Sicily because Malta was the port of disembarkation,” they argued.

Malta is the only EU member state that does not accept the international law principle that it has to host all those rescued in its search and rescue area

The 218 migrants were on two dinghies that departed from Libya heading for Europe. According to the NGO, the migrants were picked up after finding themselves in distress about 73 nautical miles off the Libyan coast, in international waters.

Following a stand-off on the high seas with a Libyan patrol boat, its crew insisting the migrants were returned to Libya, the NGO’s vessel sailed for Pozzallo, arriving there on Sunday, after a brief stop in Malta. The Italian authorities accused the NGO of deliberately ignoring international rules and proceeding with the migrants to Italy when they were supposed to land them in Malta.

Apart from impounding the vessel, preliminary criminal charges have also been filed against three members of the crew, including the head of mission.

Judges would now decide whether to proceed with the case against and the impounded vessel should be released. A decision was expected next week, sources said.

The Maltese government has so far remained silent on the case.

When asked whether the incident had led to a diplomatic row between the two countries, a government spokesman replied that the operation had unfolded in Libya’s SAR and that Malta had no obligation to accept the migrants.

Malta contests the international law provision on responsibility for migrants rescued in its vast SAR. It argues that migrants should be taken to the ‘closest safe port’. In the majority of cases, this would either be Lampedusa or Sicily. Italy does not agree with this interpretation.

Over recent years, Italy used to accept all rescued migrants departing from Libya within the framework of what many considered to be an unofficial agreement with Malta.

However, following the elections in Italy earlier this month there are growing indications that the situation is very likely to change.

This, the sources said, would again put Malta on collision course with the Italian government.

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