Updated at 1.15pm with government statement
A boat carrying 70 migrants was rescued and disembarked on Lampedusa in the early hours of Saturday morning, in a rescue coordinated by Malta’s coast authorities.
The vessel was spotted in distress when it was 18 nautical miles off Lampedusa, the Italian coast guard said in a statement released at 2am.
Malta had subsequently issued an alert to all vessels in the area to rescue the stranded migrants. According to Italian news agency ANSA, Maltese authorities told their Italian counterparts that they had “no boats available”.
That claim was vehemently contested by the Maltese government, which said local authorities "took all necessary action" in line with international law.
Maltese authorities had issued a maritime broadcast and were in continuous contact with their counterparts in Rome throughout, the government said.
NGO rescue ship Mare Jonio subsequently answered the alert and headed towards the distressed boat carrying migrants. The ship’s captain had made contact with Italian coast authorities, who informed him that he would have to speak to Malta about the rescue, as it was responsible.
According to ANSA, however, by the time the Mare Jonio reached the migrant boat, it had drifted even closer to the coast of Lampedusa and the island’s coast guard had brought people ashore.
Sources within the Maltese government told Times of Malta that the migrant boat had found itself stranded in an area covered by EU Frontex operation Themis.
Malta and Italy have clashed time and time again over migration policy this year, with both countries’ governments reluctant to give in to the other when it comes to migrant rescues.
Italy’s government has adopted a hardline stance, saying that its ports are closed to all migrant arrivals and accusing Malta of not pulling its weight. Authorities in Malta deny this and say that they abide by their international obligations – which by their interpretation means that they will accept all distressed vessels for which Malta is the closest safe port.