Comments by a UNHCR comments following the recent operation which saw 44 immigrants being rescued at sea and taken to Lampedusa gave the impression that the Maltese authorities had abdicated their responsibilities when this was not the case, the Armed Forces of Malta said.

Following the operation, UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards thanked the Italian navy for taking the initiative "despite the fact that the boat was in Maltese search and rescue waters".

The AFM said that the immigrants initial call from the rubber dinghy last Tuesday was taken by Palermo Radio in Sicily, which in turn referred it to the Italian SAR authority in Rome.

When contacted about this alert, Malta evaluated the dinghy to be within the Libyan SAR region of responsibility, at approximately 135 nautical miles (NM) to the south west of Malta.

At this stage of the SAR operation Rome was the initial coordinating authority as the first to be alerted to the incident, and thus responsible for directing efforts to localise the distress position and address rescue assets in that direction.

Malta immediately engaged in supporting Rome in the conduct of this case, issued a Navtex warning message and broadcast a PAN PAN voice radio message to all shipping in the area.

This routine procedure alerted all vessels navigating in the area of the reported distress.

Malta also successfully established contact with the migrants onboard the boat via satellite phone, and determined their general condition and the local weather state in their area.

An AFM surface asset that at the time was three to four hours away from the reported distress position was offered to Rome for assistance but was declined as Rome stated that they already had a warship in the area.

To further support Rome, Malta initiated contacts with Tunis and NATO headquarters in Naples, so as to enquire whether any of their respective assets were in the area. As a result of this, Tunis also deployed a patrol craft and a Tunisian flagged tug-boat to proceed towards the migrants' last tracked position, yet their search in the area yielded no results.

When the migrants' dinghy entered the Maltese SRR, Malta formally assumed the coordination of the SAR mission.

Simultaneously the Italian authorities declared that "Lampedusa island's port is not a place of safety for disembarkation of migrants rescued at sea".

"The UNCHR's spokesperson's comments fail to mention all these facts as well as the fact that the AFM also carried out two back-to-back aerial searches on Wednesday afternoon and evening with a maritime patrol aircraft, covering a total area of 2,9252 NM, with negative results.

"The day after, the AFM's KingAir MPA again conducted a search in Maltese SRR, south of Lampedusa covering a total area of 4,2482 NM, as well as an area 40 to 55 NM south west of Malta, with negative results.

"Similarly, a Portuguese operated FRONTEX aircraft, which was also assigned a search mission, was unsuccessful in locating the craft in distress."

The AFM said that when on Thursday evening Rome informed the AFM that the migrants's dinghy had been sighted by an Italian fishing vessel (in a position 125 NM south west of Malta, and 56 NM south of Lampedusa), the Italian Navy vessel "Foscari" was a mere four nautical miles away and thus represented the most immediate response to the distress situation.

Foscari's position also permitted the medical evacuation of a mother and newborn infant by helicopter subsequent to rescue.

"The impression conveyed by the UNHCR's spokesperson's omission of these well chronicled facts, gives the wrong and very false impression that the Maltese SAR authorities abdicated from their responsibilities and did not cooperate with the relevant Italian authorities in the conduct of this SAR mission.

"The decision for the Italian Navy vessel Foscari to take the rescued migrants to an Italian port in Sicily was the result of Italian insistence that Lampedusa does not represent a place of safety for the disembarkation of migrants, despite it being a mere four hours from the position where the persons were rescued.

"Under the relevant legal regime applicable with the Malta SRR, the persons should have been disembarked in Lampedusa which, despite declarations to the contrary, represented the nearest place of safety."

The AFM said that at all times during the rescue operation, Malta fully complied with all international legal obligation and cooperated closely with all other relevant SAR authorities engaged in the case.

"The SAR organisation in Malta is established and operated in accordance with all best practices laid out by the relevant international organisations. Proof of this is the fact that, during a recent member state audit conducted by the International Maritime Organisation, the Maltese SAR Authority was found to be fully compliant with all relevant provisions," the AFM said.