By Chris Scicluna
VALLETTA (Reuters) - Malta said on Friday it would take in 54 migrants rescued by an Italian charity boat off Libya this week, after Italy refused to let the vessel dock at one of its ports as it labours to shut down sea migration routes.
However, in a convoluted game of cat-and-mouse that is pitting EU governments against each other and against the non-governmental rescue boats, Malta said it would dispatch to Italy a similar number of migrants already on its territory.
Malta and Italy have frequently been at loggerheads over who should receive migrants rescued in the Mediterranean and both have closed their ports to NGO rescue ship unless agreement is reached for those on board to be transferred to other countries.
A German charity ship, Sea-Watch 3, waited more than two weeks in international waters before forcing its way into the Italian port of Lampedusa last weekend, triggering political recriminations and a legal battle.
Perhaps looking to prevent another high-profile stand-off, Malta moved swiftly to accept 54 mainly Africans who were picked up on Thursday by the Alex sailboat, which is operated by the Italian charity Mediterranea.
"The condition of women, children and men aboard the Alex, which is still blocked off Lampedusa, is rapidly deteriorating," Mediterranea said on Twitter shortly before Malta said it would send a boat to pick them up.
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini had tweeted that the Alex should take them to Tunisia and there was no immediate confirmation that Italy had agreed to take in 55 migrants from Malta as announced by the government in Valletta.
Since taking office a year ago, Salvini has introduced a slew of anti-migrant measures to which have led to a decline in new arrivals. Just 2,790 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year, according to official data, down 83% on the same period in 2018 and down 97% on 2017 levels.
The Italian government has accused the NGO rescue boats of acting as a de-facto taxi service for migrants and of colluding with people-smugglers.
"NGOs have found a new way to be in the spotlight. They go to Libyan waters, they take people who could have been saved by the Libyan navy, they come to Italy and the show begins," Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio said on Friday.
The charities deny the accusations, saying thousands of people would die trying to make the perilous crossing without their help. Underscoring the dangers, more than 80 migrants were feared to have drowned off the coast of Tunisia after their boat capsized, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said on Thursday.
"Nobody puts their lives and the lives of their families at risk on these desperate boat journeys unless they feel they have no other choice," Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR Special Envoy for the Mediterranean, said in a statement.
(Reporting by Christopher Scicluna in Malta and Crispian Balmer in Rome; Editing by Toby Chopra)