ROME - A ship carrying 629 migrants rescued while trying to cross the Mediterranean is stranded at sea after being turned away by both Italy and Malta.
The Aquarius, which has more than 120 children and seven pregnant women onboard, saved hundreds from drowning in international waters on Saturday, but neither Rome nor Valetta has so far allowed it to dock.
The two nations are currently locked in a standoff, with Italy's new interior minister Matteo Salvini threatening to bar all rescue ships from docking in the country's ports unless Malta takes on the Aquarius.
Salvini reportedly sent a letter to the Maltese authorities saying he would 'be forced to close Italy's ports' if the 629 migrants saved by the charities SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders weren't allowed to land at Malta's capital Valletta.
Italy's interior ministry said they had so far been unable to confirm the existence of the letter.
'Saving lives at sea is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp is not,' Salvini, the leader of the right-wing anti-migrant League party, said on Facebook on Monday.
'Italy is done bowing its head and obeying. This time there's someone saying no.'
The Aquarius is currently drifting in international waters between Italy and Malta, having been instructed to 'stand by' by the Italian coastguard, which co-coordinated Saturday's rescue effort, SOS Mediterranee said.
The United Nations refugee agency has today called on the governments of Italy and Malta to 'allow the immediate disembarkation' of the migrants on the Aquarius, adding that those onboard 'are running out of provisions.'
This weekend's rescue operation on the Aquarius has been carried out by SOS Mediterranee in partnership with Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and coordinated by the Italian coastguard.
As such, it is the Italians who are responsible for telling the Aquarius where it may dock, and Italian Coast Guard vessels picked up more than 280 of the 629 migrants and transferred them to the Aquarius to be taken to safety.
Currently, the Aquarius has been ordered to 'stand by' in its current position 35 nautical miles from Italy and 27 nautical miles from Malta.
It is not known how long the Aquarius can remain at sea, as Italy has said it is will provide aid on patrol ships, but is awaiting further instructions from the Italian coastguard.
A crew member who spoke to a local news channel warned that dozens of people on board are in need of medical care, and that the ship needs to dock - regardless of in which country.
'The people we saved yesterday [Saturday] were in a difficult condition, at least 50 were at risk of drowning,' Aquarius crew member Alessandro Porro told news channel Sky TG24.
'We need to have an idea of what port to go to, something that up to now we haven't had.'
However, Italian premier Giuseppe Conte said that Italy has sent two patrol ships with doctors on board 'ready to intervene and ensure the health of anyone on board the Aquarius who might have the need'.
The Maltese government insists that the rescue had taken 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.
Meanwhile, despite the government's refusal, several Italian cities have offered to let the Aquarius dock.
The mayor of the southern port of Taranto, Rinaldo Melucci, said the city was 'ready to embrace every life in danger'.
'Our land has always been one of refuge, I don't know how you can send away 629 human lives,' he added.
The Mayor of Naples Luigi de Magistris said on Twitter that 'if a minister without a heart leaves pregnant women, children, old people, human being to die, the port of Naples is ready to welcome them'.
Spanish press has reported that the city of Valencia, on the south-eastern coast has offered to let the migrants disembark, but it is not known if the offer has officially been extended to the Italian coastguard. (FA)