Updated at 7.10pm with Malta reaction
Italy's new Home Affairs Minister has warned that the country will be adopting a far tougher stance towards Malta on migration issues than it did in the past shortly after an NGO vessel with migrants was initially barred from landing on the island.
“The Good Lord put Malta closer to African shores than Sicily,” said Matteo Salvini. “Malta cannot always say ‘no’ to any request to intervene.”
However, the government issued a terse statement on Friday evening, denying that it did not give assistance to migrants:
"Malta adheres to all its obligations at all times. With regards to search and rescue, Malta acts in accordance to the international conventions that apply. Malta will continue to respect these conventions with respect to the safety of life at sea, as happened in this latest case and indeed in each case."
The reaction came hours after at a press conference in Como, Mr Salvini made it clear that he believed a number of NGOs which carried out migrant rescue missions in the Mediterranean sea were little more than “taxi services”.
He gave the example of a “German NGO” flying a Dutch flag which "waves as it sails past Malta and then lands in Italy. This is a mockery."
His intervention appeared to have been made shortly after Malta barred the NGO Sea Eye from disembarking in Malta with 119 migrants.
The NGO said the Armed Forces of Malta did not allow the vessel to alter its route since the decision was not based for safety reasons.
A strong wind warning is in effect in the centre of the Mediterranean until 11pm.
Italy's problem is not Russian tanks,” Mr Salvini added. “It’s boats leaving Libyan shores.”
Mr Salvini’s hard words will play well with the Italian electorate, which has grown increasingly resentful about Italy accepting asylum seekers arriving by sea while boat arrivals elsewhere, including Malta, plummeted.
READ: 'You have to call Malta'
They will however rankle with Maltese authorities in Castille, who have so far done their best to adopt a diplomatic tone when faced with the prospect of a more belligerent government in Rome.
In comments to the Times of Malta last week, a spokesman at the Office of the Prime Minister said they were “sure” that historic and geographical ties linking Malta and Italy would ensure relations remained positive.
The Maltese government has repeatedly highlighted its willingness to abide by EU relocation quotas – it is among the few member states to have done so – and will likely point to statistics which show that the rate of asylum seekers per capita in Malta is higher than Italy’s, and the fourth-highest across the EU.
The constant arrival of migrants from Africa was practically stemmed following what is believed to be an undisclosed agreement between Joseph Muscat and former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.