Drama over Salvini's closed ports policy intensified Monday morning as a second migrant ship bound for Italy and presently in Libyan waters, having collected its human cargo, was also blocked by the government.
Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said he personally contacted Malta's prime minister, Joseph Muscat, to "explicitly at least take on the human assistance of persons in difficulty aboard the Aquarius".
"In the Mediterranean.there's Malta that does now welcome anyone, there is France that rejects [refugees] at its borders, there's Spain that defends its borders with the arms". Salvini campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform that also included a vow to expel hundreds of thousands of migrants already in Italy, even though experts doubt such mass deportations are feasible or financially viable.
Malta allows a small number of emergency evacuations from rescue ships but has always refused large numbers.
Salvini, in a joint statement with Italian coastguard minister Danilo Toninelli, insisted that Malta "cannot continue to look the other way when it comes to respecting precise worldwide conventions on the protection of human life".
Earlier, Malta said in a statement that the Aquarius took on the passengers in waters controlled by Libya and where Italian authorities in Rome coordinate search-and-rescue operations.
The Maltese Rescue Coordination Centre "is neither the competent nor the coordinating authority", the statement said.
Mayors of Naples and Palermo in turn vented their anger at Salvini, as they stated that their cities would be more than happy to accept those in need of shelter despite the fact that both cities had been suffering from major migrant influx in the past five years.
Salvini, leader of the right-wing League, had promised voters ahead of the country's recent general election that it would act tough against immigration. "We need to know who is arriving", a local man, Salvo Cavallaro said, "these 600 people, we don't know who they are".
Some 629 migrants are aboard the Aquarius, a vessel operated by the charities Medecins Sans Frontieres and Sos Mediterranee, off the coast of Libya on Saturday. Italy is the main entry for migrants crossing from North Africa to Europe.
Tweeting out the hashtag #CloseMyPorts, Salvini identified the Sea Watch 3, a Dutch-flagged vessel working for a German open-borders group, telling his followers: "Italy has stopped bending its head and obeying, this is the time where we say no".
"The Mediterranean is the sea of all the countries that face it, and it (Malta) can't imagine that Italy will continue to face this giant phenomenon (of migration) in solitude", the ministers said.