Malta, clash over migrant rescue operation

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VALLETTA, Sept 17 (Reuters) - Malta refused on Tuesday to accept 90 migrants rescued by an Italian Coast Guard vessel in its search and rescue zone, setting up a potential standoff with the new Italian government.

The Italian Coast Guard said on Tuesday it had picked up the migrants from a sinking boat off Libya at the request of the Maltese rescue coordination centre.

The Coast Guard said its vessel was taking the migrants to Maltese waters, but Malta had refused to send a vessel to transfer them.

The Maltese Armed Forces had been surveilling the situation and the Italians got involved, an armed forces spokeswoman said. She gave no further comment.

Malta has repeatedly insisted that migrants should be taken to the closest safe harbour, which in this case was the Italian island of Lampedusa.

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The incident comes ahead of a meeting in Malta next week of European Union interior ministers to discuss a new migrant distribution mechanism.

Meanwhile, the Ocean Viking charity vessel, run by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders, said on Twitter it had rescued 48 migrants from a wooden boat off the Libyan coast. (Reporting by Chris Scicluna; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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