Malta yesterday refused to take in 76 would-be immigrants rescued by an Italian warship nearer to Lampedusa last Sunday evening, rejecting the Italians' attempt to land them here.

The migrants, who include 13 women, were rescued from a dinghy by the frigate Minerva some 40 nautical miles off Lampedusa and were eventually taken to the Italian island.

The rescue took place in Malta's search and rescue area and for this reason the frigate was on its way here when an exchange about who was responsible for the migrants took place.

The Maltese authorities told the ship it would be refused entry to Maltese waters since Lampedusa was the closest port of call to where the migrants had been rescued.

The Italian authorities argued however that the spot where the rescue took place fell within the Maltese rescue region. Malta insisted that since the migrants were closer to Lampedusa - and 115 miles from Malta - they should be taken to the Italian island.

Sources said the Italians made the argument that according to the Search and Rescue Convention, the migrants had to be taken to the "safest" port of call that was within the search and rescue area, and that Lampedusa did not fall within the parameters of this definition. Sources told The Times that Malta is a signatory to an earlier version of the Search and Rescue Convention under which people rescued at sea should be dropped off at the safest and closest port of call, irrelevant of which search and rescue area they are found in.

Unlike Italy, Malta had not accepted - and never signed - an amendment stating that those rescued have to be taken to a port in the search and rescue area.

After the exchange the Maltese got their way and ship turned around and headed for Lampedusa.

The Italian daily Corriere della Sera reported that a further 237 migrants were rescued and taken to Lampedusa earlier yesterday morning.

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