European Union and United Nations urge Italy, Malta to accept drifting migrant boat

The humanitarian ship Aquarius currently 43 nautical miles off Malta's coast carrying 629 migrants

Both governments refused to allow the ship to dock, before Spain offered it safe port on Monday afternoon "to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe".

A bitter row broke out between Italy and Malta at the weekend over which country should take in the Aquarius rescue boat, which picked up the migrants on Saturday and Sunday.

Both Italy and Malta had come under increasing worldwide pressure to allow the migrant rescue ship to dock, and they continued to argue over who was responsible.

The rescue service says its patrol craft intercepted six different boats carrying migrants that had left from African shores throughout Saturday. "It is our obligation to avoid a human catastrophe and offer a safe haven to these people, fulfilling that way the obligations of global law", his government said in a statement.

The Council of Europe welcomed Spain's move, with the organization's Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic, tweeting: "Saving lives at sea is an obligation that states must always uphold".

Italy and Malta held firm despite the heavy diplomatic pressure, with Italy's new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, clearly using the high seas drama as a pretext to force the hand of Italy's European neighbours.

The ship, which was located in worldwide waters between Malta and Italy, is carrying 629 people on board, with reports of the vessel only having enough food to last one day.

"This plan would mean already exhausted rescued people would endure 4 more days travel at sea", Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said on Twitter.

SOS Mediterranee said the Aquarius had enough supplies to feed the migrants at least for another day.

"Saving lives is a duty, turning Italy into a huge refugee camp is not".

The official, who asked not to be identified, said that Italy would not open its ports to the Aquarius.

"Our sole objective is to bring the people we've rescued, in hard conditions yesterday, to a port of safety", the group said in a statement.

"The boat is now heading north towards a secure port", SOS Mediterranee tweeted on Sunday without specifying its destination, though virtually every such migrant boat over the past five years has ended up in Italy.

The 629 migrants - including 123 unaccompanied minors and several pregnant women - were onboard the Aquarius, operated by the charity SOS Mediterranee.

In a statement issued Monday, the International Chamber of Shipping warned that refusing port access to vessels like the Aquarius could have "serious implications for the safety and welfare of these distressed people, including children and pregnant women".

Under EU rules, migrants must apply for asylum in the European country where they first arrive.

The summer of 2016 saw a surge in mass drownings in the Mediterranean as Europe's worst migration crisis since World War II peaked with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere.

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