Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has refused to let rescue boats dock at Italian ports
Europe comes together to host rescued migrants
France and Malta have agreed to host 50 migrants each, responding to a request for help sent by Italy after 450 migrants from Libya arrived in an overcrowded ship in the Mediterranean, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said.
Other European countries will also take some of the asylum seekers, Conte added in a message posted on his official Facebook profile on Saturday.
"This is the first important result obtained after a day of phone calls and written exchanges I have had with all 27 European leaders," Conte said.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat confirmed that his tiny Mediterranean island would accept 50 people. "Malta not only demands but offers solidarity," he tweeted.
French officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Earlier on Saturday, a ship operated by EU border agency Frontex and a vessel owned by Italy's tax police picked up the migrants near the Italian island of Linosa and more than 100 nautical miles from Malta.
Conte posted the text of two separate letters he sent to European heads of state and government and to the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council.
"We have to act together with urgency to face this complex and very sensitive situation," Conte wrote in one letter. Conte said Italy would take some of the rescued migrants if other countries also agreed to share the burden.
Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is leading a high-profile campaign to exclude humanitarian rescue ships from Italian ports, had insisted earlier on Saturday that the migrants could not land in Italy. He suggested Malta take up their cause but Valletta had objected strongly.
Conte also called for further measures to tackle illegal immigration, including pan-EU rules for private boats rescuing migrants, a strengthening of Frontex and talks with the United Nations on centres for asylum seekers outside Europe.
Eight migrants needed medical assistance and were taken to the Italian island of Lampedusa for treatment.
Salvini and Conte agreed by phone on Saturday there were three possible options, a source at the premier's office said.
"The migrants could be distributed immediately among European countries, or Italy would contact Libya to send them back to where they came from," the source said.
A third option would be to leave the migrants on the ships temporarily while their asylum requests are considered, the source added.
Libyan officials ruled out helping Rome on the matter. "No, we will not accept any illegal migrants after they are rescued by rescue ships...," the spokesman of Libya's coast guard, Ayob Qassem, told Reuters.
Under international law, refugees cannot be returned to a place where their lives are in danger. Both the United Nations and EU have ruled that Libya is not safe, though Salvini this week asked EU interior ministers to change that status.
German, Austrian and French ministers agreed it could be done, Salvini said.
In just one month in office, Salvini has upended years of Italian policy toward migrants by refusing them entry. Italy feels that the European Union has left it alone to handle the tens of thousands of migrants coming across the sea every year. Salvini is pressing the EU to step up and take in the migrants who land in Italy and trying to helping Libya to prevent them from leaving.
Aid officials say migrants being returned to Libya are at risk to face abuse, rape, beatings and slavery.