44 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean by a merchant vessel are being taken to Malta after two days in limbo following Italy's refusal to accept them. They were expected to disembark on the island late Wednesday.
The migrants were plucked from a rickety wooden boat late Monday by the merchant vessel Just Fitz III after they ran into difficulties during the perilous crossing from North Africa, AFP reports.
The vessel, operating with a flag from the Marshall Islands, had been headed to Tunisia. It was diverted to help the migrants in distress some 60 nautical miles south of the Italian island of Lampedusa in Malta's search and rescue zone.
Valletta said those rescued at sea should be taken to the nearest safe port, on Lampedusa. But Italy's interior minister Matteo Salvini refused to let the ship enter Italian ports. Salvini has taken a hard-line stance against migrants that includes further reducing migrant arrivals to the country.
"Following the refusal of Italy to provide for the nearest place of safety, shelter and logistical support to the ship and in view of deteriorating weather conditions affecting the area," Malta agreed to take the migrants, the army said according to AFP.
An offshore patrol vessel picked up the migrants from the Just Fitz III and was expected to disembark them on Malta late Wednesday.