Spain offers to take in drifting migrant ship Aquarius

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Aquarius rescued 629 people Saturday night into Sunday morning - taking on people from two rubber vessels as well as "Italian navy ships, Italian coast guard ships and merchant vessels" in six different operations, MSF and SOS said on Twitter.

As the rhetoric intensified, the Aquarius remained on standby in the Mediterranean Sea with its 629 passengers, including 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women.

In a statement it said the Aquarius took on the migrants in global waters off Libya and rescue operations were coordinated by Italy.

Local media have been suggesting that by instructing Acquarius to stand by its current position in deep waters, new Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who had been criticising NGOs for carrying out the role of taxis for migrants, has started implementing anti-migrant policies.

Malta said the rescue operations took place in worldwide waters off Libya and were coordinated by Italy. "France pushes people back at the border; Spain defends its frontier with weapons".

On Sunday, Salvini said Italy was saying "no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration".

Malta allows a small number of emergency evacuations from rescue ships but has always refused large numbers.

Italy's hardline interior minister Matteo Salvini, in a joint statement with Danilo Toninelli, minister in charge of the Italian coastguard, insisted that Malta "cannot continue to look the other way when it comes to respecting precise worldwide conventions on the protection of human life".

Earlier, Aquarius crew member Alessandro Porro told news channel Sky TG24, that the ship was north of Malta and had "received no communications from the Maltese authorities".

The migrant influx has led to a populist backlash, with Salvini vowing to prevent Italy from becoming the "refugee camp of Europe".

The League promised voters during Italy's general election that it would take a tough stance on immigration, the BBC reported.

"It is our duty to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a safe port to these people, to comply with our human rights obligations", Sanchez's office said.

However, Mr Salvini does not have authority over the ports and it was not immediately clear if his edict would hold.

Talking to the paper, the legal expert said: "The decision to close the ports is more than legitimate".

Survivors rescued from the Mediterranean by the Aquarius, which is operated by the Medecins Sans Frontieres and SOS Mediterranee charities.

In a video, she said: "People are slowly getting up and getting ready for their first meal and we are yet to learn which port they are going to be using to disembark".

Farther west in the Mediterranean, Spain's maritime rescue service saved 334 migrants and recovered four bodies from boats it intercepted trying to reach Europe over the weekend.

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