Rome: Italy`s new Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has refused permission for a rescue vessel to drop off 629 migrants picked up off Libya`s coast saying ports were closed to migrants from that country, the Guardian reported.
Salvini, leader of the far-right League, said Malta should let the Aquarius dock but he was rejected.
However, the ship has been allowed to dock in the Sicilian capital, after Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of Palermo, defied the new Italian populist government`s orders.
The decision was backed by other mayors in Italy`s south, including those in Naples, Messina, and Reggio Calabria, who all said they were ready to disobey Salvini`s order and allow Aquarius to dock and disembark in their seaports, the Guardian reported.
SOS Mediterranee, which runs the Aquarius, said the ship was instructed by the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre on Sunday to stand by at 35 nautical miles from Italy and 27 nautical miles from Malta.
One Aquarius crew member, Alessandro Porro, told Italian news channel Sky TG24 that they desperately needed to know which port to go to. "The people we saved were in a difficult condition, at least 50 were at risk of drowning," he added.
Malta said the German charity SOS Mediterranee had picked up the migrants in Libyan waters, which meant they fell under Italy`s jurisdiction. Italy is the main entry for migrants crossing from North Africa to Europe.
Many of the migrants were rescued in waters controlled by Libya, a common route for undocumented migrants attempting to enter Europe from sub-Saharan Africa, the BBC reported.
Among those saved and brought on board the Aquarius are 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 younger children and seven pregnant women, the SOS Mediterranee said.
On Sunday, Salvini said Italy was saying "no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration". "Malta takes in nobody," he said. "France pushes people back at the border; Spain defends its frontier with weapons. It is not possible for Malta to say `no` to every request for help. The Good Lord put Malta closer than Sicily to Africa."
The League promised voters during Italy`s general election that it would take a tough stance on immigration, the BBC reported.
The SOS Mediterranee said the migrants were picked up in six separate overnight operations in the central Mediterranean on Saturday. Some 400 of the migrants were rescued by the Italian Navy, the Italian coastguard and merchant's vessels before being transferred to the Aquarius.
Last week, Salvini said Rome should increase its deportations of migrants. The Italian government also wants to relocate asylum seekers EU-wide -- a scheme already rejected by some member states, the BBC said.
Salvini said he is considering action against organizations rescuing migrants at sea. He has previously accused them of being in cahoots with human traffickers.