A Spanish rescue boat plucked 60 migrants from a rubber dinghy in the sea near Libya on Saturday, prompting Italy's hard-line interior minister to immediately announce it won't be allowed to dock in any Italian port.
The vessel, run by Spanish humanitarian group Proactiva Open Arms, said it rescued the migrants - including five women, a nine-year-old child and three teenagers - after it spotted a rubber boat patched with duct tape floating in the sea. All the migrants appeared in good health.
Italy's right-wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini quickly responded, saying the boat "can forget about arriving in an Italian port." He claimed the boat should go to Malta, the nearest port. But Malta swiftly pushed back, with its interior minister contending the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily, was closer.
Salvini has vowed that no more humanitarian groups' rescue boats will dock in Italy. In recent years, private rescue vessels brought many of the hundreds of thousands of migrants saved from smuggler boats to Italy.
On Saturday Salvini contended on Twitter that the Open Arms had taken on the migrants before a Libyan motorboat, in Libya's search-and-rescue zone, could intervene.
But the boat's captain, Marco Martinez, said he informed the Rome-based Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre and was instructed to call Libyan maritime authorities, who didn't answer either phone or by radio. The captain said officials in Rome then told him it was up to him to decide whether to carry out the rescue or not.
An AP journalist who was aboard a nearby companion vessel when the dinghy was spotted reported that a Libya coast guard vessel was seen approaching the Open Arms, but just as it neared the rescue, it made a U-turn and left, ordering the Open Arms to return to Spain.
Malta's interior minister, Michael Farrugia, tweeted back his retort to Salvini. "Quit spreading incorrect news, dragging Malta into it for no reason," he wrote, attaching a map which he said indicated the rescue occurred in Libya's search-and-rescue area and in waters between Libya and Lampedusa.
Saturday's operation was the latest that highlighted political tensions in the European Union over which countries should bear the burden of incoming asylum-seekers.
Last week the small Mediterranean island nation of Malta broke days of standoff when it agreed to give safe harbor to a German group's rescue boat, Lifeline - but only after a deal in which nine European nations, including Malta, pledged to take some of the more than 200 migrants aboard while their asylum requests are analyzed.
While politicians bickered, those rescued by the Open Arms were jubilant and ecstatic, jumping, chanting and hugging their rescuers.
Saturday's successful rescue was witnessed by four European Parliament lawmakers aboard a companion vessel, the Astral, for an observation mission. The lawmakers, along with the AP journalist, then boarded the Open Arms to meet the migrants and rescue crew.
One of the lawmakers, Javi Lopez, a Spaniard, said that authorities in Spain were studying the possibility of taking in the migrants since Malta and Italy weren't providing safe harbor.
There was no immediate answer from Spanish authorities. Proactiva Open Arms spokesperson Laura Lanuza said the boats were heading north while negotiations with different authorities were ongoing.
Earlier in the month, Spain took in some 630 migrants aboard another rescue group's vessel, the Aquarius, which spent days stuck in the Mediterranean after both Malta and Italy denied it safe harbor.
Salvini and the government's other coalition party leader, Luigi Di Maio, have likened the humanitarian groups to taxi-services for human traffickers based in largely lawless Libya.
Malta is investigating whether the Lifeline's crew disobeyed any orders in rescue the migrants.
A day earlier, 100 migrants were reported missing off the Libyan coast, after the Libyan coast guard rescued some 16 survivors.
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