by Alessandra Cardone
ROME, June 10 (Xinhua) -- Italy refused to allow a migrant ship carrying over 600 rescued migrants and refugees enter any of its ports in the southern regions, and urged Malta to receive them, Italian government sources said on Sunday.
"Our Port Authority has repeatedly wrote to authorities in Valletta (Malta's capital) in order for them to face their responsibility for the first time," Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini wrote in a joint statement with Infrastructure Minister Danilo Toninelli published on Facebook.
Salvini added it was Italy's intention to wait for Malta's "official reply to our request to open its ports, and rescue the hundreds of castaways who are on board of Aquarius ship."
"Starting from today, Italy starts saying no to human trafficking and illegal migration business," the minister wrote.
No other statement was available from the Interior Ministry official website up to Sunday evening.
The Aquarius ship -- operated by non-governmental group SOS Mediterranee -- had 629 people on board, including 123 non-accompanied minors and 11 small children, according to the charity.
Italian authorities said Malta was to be considered "the safest landing point", since the ship would be at about 43 miles (about 69.2 km) from the port of Valletta.
This was the first time Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's recently installed government -- formed on a coalition of far-right League and anti-establishment Five Star Movement -- decided to turn away migrants and refugees saved during the Mediterranean crossing.
The two parties forged an alliance on the base of a platform including a crackdown on irregular migrants, and a stop in the reception of those trying to reach Europe from northern African coasts.
The 629 people had been saved in six separate missions carried out earlier this week by SOS Mediterranee, Italy's army and coast guard, and merchant vessels, and later moved onto the major ship to be brought to land.
Despite Italy's insistence that the Maltese government declare Malta the safest port of call, the country has so far refused to do so.
"The rescue happened in the Libyan search and rescue area and it was coordinated by the rescue coordination center in Rome. Malta is neither the coordinating authority and has no competence on this case," a Maltese government spokesperson said.
In a statement released on Twitter, the Italian branch of UN refugee agency UNHCR urged "states and actors involved to find swift solutions to allow migrants and refugees on Aquarius to be disembarked safely and quickly."
"The slowing of operations puts the health of hundreds of people in urgent need of assistance at risk," the UN agency added.
Earlier this week, three rescue ships managed by German charities reached Italy's ports of Pozzallo and Reggio Calabria, and were allowed to disembark some 467 migrants and refugees overall.
Italy has long been at the forefront of Europe's migrant crisis, and especially since the closure of the so-called Balkan route in spring 2016.
It saw the number of migrant and refugee arrivals decrease from mid-2017 on, after signing a controversial deal with Libya's authorities and factions to curb departures from the Libyan coasts.
From Jan. 1 to June 8, the country registered 13,808 arrivals, marking a 77.47 percent and 71.94 percent decrease compared to the same period of 2017 and 2016, respectively.
Overall, it received 119,369 migrants and refugees in 2017, and 181,436 in 2016.