Updated 1.23pm with Farrugia tweet

An NGO boat with around 50 rescued migrants on board should head to Malta because it provided the closest port, Italy's right-wing deputy prime minister said on Saturday, sparking a fresh diplomatic spat between the neighbouring countries.

But the Maltese government hit back at once to say that the closest port to the vessel currently off Libya was actually Lampedusa, which falls under Italy's responsibility. 

"Italy rejected the boat when it is legally obliged to take responsibility," a government spokesman told Times of Malta. 

The dispute came to the fore after Mr Salvini tweeted that the Spanish-flagged Open Arms vessel had rescued the migrants in Libya's search and rescue waters. He also claimed that the NGO proceeded with the rescue before the Libyan coastguard could provide assistance. 

The condition of those on board is not yet known. 

"The nearest port is Malta, forget landing in an Italian port. Stop the mafia of human trafficking: if fewer people leave, fewer people die," Mr Salvini tweeted, upping his anti-migrant rhetoric.

Within an hour, Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia tweeted back with an image of a map showing that the vessel was geographically closer to Lampedusa than Malta. 

"Please stop giving false news to try to involve Malta in a dispute without valid reason. We're publishing this map for everyone to see. These are facts not opinions," Dr Farrugia said.

The NGO is in a potential watery limbo after Malta also controversially proceeded to block its ports to NGO vessels.

Read: Malta closes ports to migrant NGO ships - government confirms

The decision came within hours of Malta welcoming a group of 234 migrants caught up in a six-day ordeal after Italy refused to provide a port.

The new spat also comes just a day after EU leaders said they had reached an agreement on how to control migration, one of the pillars of which is to provide more support for the Libyan coastguard. The agreement also says that NGOs should back off and not hinder their operations.

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