Italy's new interior minister Matteo Salvini threatened Sunday to close access to Italian ports for migrant rescue ships if Malta refuses to take hundreds of people saved by an NGO, reports said.
La Repubblica newspaper reported Salvini sent a letter to the Maltese authorities saying he would "be forced to close Italy's ports" if the 629 migrants saved by French NGO SOS Mediterranee weren't allowed to land at Malta's capital Valletta.
According to the daily Corriere Della Sera, the letter describes Valletta as the "most secure port" and the boat should thus dock there.
Italy's interior ministry told AFP they were still trying to confirm the existence of the letter.
A spokesman for the Maltese government told AFP they "have not received communication from Salvini so far", but that "Malta was neither the coordinating nor the competent authority" in the rescue.
The spokesman said it took place in the Libyan search and rescue area and was headed up by the rescue coordination centre in Rome, meaning Malta has no legal obligation to take in the migrants.
SOS Mediterranee said the crew of the Aquarius were still at sea and awaiting instructions.
"Our sole objective is to bring the people we've rescued, in difficult conditions yesterday, to a port of safety," the group said in a statement.
- Anti-migrant rhetoric -
The migrants were rescued by SOS Mediterranee's vessel Aquarius in six separate night-time operations in the central Mediterranean on Saturday. It was currently in search of a secure port at which to land.
The French organisation said that among those saved and brought on board are 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 small children and seven pregnant women.
Salvini, also deputy prime minister, has continued with his anti-migrant rhetoric since taking charge of the interior ministry, asking on Friday for NATO to defend Italy, which he says is "under attack from the south".
Salvini's comments came after another spat with Malta following its reported refusal to come to the aid of another rescue ship Seefuchs, which was stranded with 126 migrants on board due to violent seas until it was allowed to dock in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo on Saturday.
"If anyone thinks I won't move a muscle while we have another summer of landings, landings and more landings, well that's not what I'm going to do," Salvini told reporters.
The same day Italian authorities held the migrant rescue boat Sea-Watch 3 for 12 hours after it brought 232 people to Reggio Calabria, on the south-western tip of the mainland.
Italian police questioned the boat's captain for more than four hours, according to the NGO, and journalists aboard were asked to hand over video footage of the rescue operation, which took place on June 5.
Sea-Watch said police also questioned some of the rescued migrants who, after being processed by the authorities, are likely to end up in reception centres.
Sea-Watch said it requested help from the coastguard in Malta to send boats to aid the rescue mission but Malta refused.
Italy?s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, pictured on June 1, 2018, entered a spat with Malta over ships helping to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean