Malta rejected Italian demands that it let Italy take over sea rescues in some Maltese waters, after Rome said the tiny island was incapable of doing the job properly, following the latest reported drownings of migrants.
Malta's Foreign Minister Tonio Borg said today Malta would not sign an agreement with Italy to reduce its search and rescue jurisdiction.
"We will not sign despite the pressure," Italian news agency Ansa quoted Dr Borg as saying.
Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in an interview in today's Corriere della Sera: "It is clear they (Malta) do not have the instruments, such as number of boats and crews, to control such a wide area."
The comments came after Italian authorities found a boat on Thursday with five Eritrean migrants aboard which had sailed through Maltese waters. According to the migrants some 73 others had died as the boat crossed the Mediterranean from Africa.
Asked if Malta was to blame for the tragedy, Frattini said he did not have concrete evidence to say so with certainty.
He said Italy had been negotiating with Malta for 10 years to reach an agreement on sea rescues, adding Malta had so far refused to accept a reduction of its territorial waters jurisdiction.
Malta has denied allegations it failed to save migrants.
"Five Eritreans found on a dinghy were in good health and refused to be rescued since they wanted to go to Italy," Maltese Armed Forces Commander brigadier Carmel Vassallo said in a statement.
Brig. Vassallo said Malta did not abandon the migrants until they arrived in the territorial waters of Lampedusa. "We stayed there until we were certain the Italian customs guards went for them," he said.
The prosecutor's office in Agrigento in Sicily has opened an inquiry. Sources close to the office said it might ask Maltese authorities to provide further information to check reports one of their boats had approached the migrants' vessel without providing assistance.
Some 36,900 illegal immigrants arrived in Italy by boat last year in search of a better life, a rise of 75 percent from 2007, according to the Interior Ministry.
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