More migrants rescued off Malta waters
VALLETTA - The Maltese military rescued a boatload of 68 undocumented migrants, a day after the European Commission warned Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat against sending possible asylum-seekers back to Libya.
The migrants, who included a baby just a few hours old and a heavily pregnant woman, were spotted drifting some 30 nautical miles (35 miles) south of Malta because they were experiencing engine trouble.
The migrants were transferred onto a patrol boat of the Maltese maritime squadron, an army spokesman said.
This arrival follows a boat with 290 who arrived last week and another 102 people who arrived Tuesday.
Muscat said Tuesday that the government was considering sending back a group of 45 of the latest arrivals, earning a sharp rebuke from the European Commission.
The EU's executive warned Malta that it could not expel migrants landing on its shores in boats leaving from Libya.
"I have learnt with great concern the statements from the Maltese prime minister about the possibility to send back persons recently arrived in Malta," the EU's Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem said.
"All people arriving in EU territory are entitled to file an asylum request and to have a proper assessment of their situation," she said.
"Any return operation has to respect in full these obligations," she said, in particular the principle of not pushing backing migrants.
The Maltese army on Wednesday said it has spotted two more boats and airlifted a pregnant woman from one of them but that the migrants had refused assistance and were continuing with their journey towards Italy.
Malmstroem said the EU was ready to help Malta if it faced "increased migratory pressure", responding to a request from Muscat for more help from other EU states.