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  1. ITV Report

UK says it is 'deeply concerned' but not responsible for 141 rescued migrants in flag dispute

Britain could be responsible for taking in 141 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean, Brussels said after the Italian government called for the UK to take them in.

Italy’s transport minister Danilo Toninelli claimed the UK is responsible for the migrants because the rescue ship that picked them up is sailing under the flag of the British territory of Gibraltar.

The French aid groups SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders have called on European nations to identify a close port of safety so the 141 migrants picked up in two rescues on Friday could disembark.

There are unaccompanied children among the 141 migrants. Credit: AP

The European Commission said that as the flag state, the UK could be responsible, but suggested the circumstances of the rescue also had to be looked at.

At a regular briefing for journalists in Brussels, Tove Ernst, the commission’s spokeswoman on migration, said: “There is a possibility that the flag state, that there could a case for the flag state to be responsible.

“However, this may not be practically feasible and it is also really depending on the situation and who is co-ordinating where the events took place.”

She added: “We are now in contact with a number of member states and stand ready to lend our full and swift diplomatic support to resolve this situation.”

Italy has repeatedly refused rescue ships entry to its ports.

Most of the migrants are from Somalia and Eritrea and include 67 unaccompanied minors.

A humanitarian group who are transporting the migrants have said: "Authorities from Malta and Italy inform Aquarius that they will not grant 141 people onboard a place of safety to disembark."

The Aquarius ship handed out life jackets, food and water to people onboard the vessel yesterday afternoon. Credit: SOS Mediterranee

Toninelli said the rescue was co-ordinated by the Libyan coast guard and the ship is now in Maltese waters.

He added: "At this point the United Kingdom assumes its responsibility for the safeguarding of shipwrecks."

The migrants were rescued by the SOS Mediterranee Aquarius ship. Credit: AP

A UK government spokesperson said: “We are deeply concerned for the welfare of 141 migrants who have been rescued from the Mediterranean by sailing vessel Aquarius.

“It is well-established that responsibility for arranging disembarkation, at a nearby safe port, is assumed by the relevant regional maritime rescue coordination, and in accordance with the wishes of the ship’s master.

“The UK is committed to working with European partners long-term to tackle the shared challenge of irregular migration.”

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Both Maltese and Italian maritime authorities have informed the French rescue organisation they will not grant Aquarius a place of safety to disembark the 141 rescued people on-board.

SOS Mediterranee said on Twitter: "Aquarius has now reached a standby position exactly between Malta and Italy."

They are currently awaiting to be assigned a place of safety.