VALLETTA/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Malta said on Tuesday it would not allow a tanker which picked up 102 migrants off the Libyan coast to dock, despite a call from the European Union for it to do so on humanitarian grounds.
National Security Minister Manuel Mallia told a press conference that the captain of the Liberian-registered Salamis had ignored instructions by Malta and Italy to take the migrants back to Libya.
He said the migrants were picked up 24 miles off the Libyan coast and they should have been returned to Libya, which was the nearest safe harbour when the rescue was made. Malta first said on Monday that it was refusing entry to the tanker.
Earlier on Tuesday, EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said in Brussels that the master of the Salamis had fulfilled his humanitarian duties and the ship was now closest to Malta.
Mallia said the migrants were not in distress on the tanker. Maltese doctors who visited the ship concluded medical evacuations were not necessary.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, on the social media site Twitter, said: "#Malta fulfils int'l obligations but can't be expected to step in for irresponsible shipowners flouting rules for commercial purposes -JM".
The ship's owners, Mantinia Shipping, are insisting the tanker was never instructed by the Italians, or any authority, to proceed to a Libyan port.
The migrants include four pregnant women, one injured woman and a five-month-old baby, the EU's executive Commission said.
The Mediterranean island is facing a record influx of African migrants, with 1,000 arriving in the past month.
The Commission said the priority was to save lives and any dispute about which country was responsible for rescuing the migrants or where they should land should be sorted out later.
(Reporting by Adrian Croft in Brussels and Chris Scicluna in Malta; Editing by Michael Roddy)