Italy’s new interior minister Matteo Salvini threatened yesterday 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.

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.

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