- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 18, 2009

ROME (AP) - About 140 migrants remained stranded aboard a Turkish cargo ship for a third day on Saturday as Malta and Italy argued about which country should accept them.

Italian port authorities said the migrants were aboard the Pinar in rough waters about 25 miles (40 kilometers) southwest of the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa. Two migrants who were ill were flown by Italian military helicopter to Lampedusa on Friday night for treatment after the Pinar rescued them.

Each year, tens of thousands of migrants pay smugglers to try to reach Italian shores. Often their boats capsize or get stranded, and nearby fishing boats or military ships rescue them.

Originally, the coast guard had said 152 migrants were aboard the Pinar, but two Italian doctors scrambled aboard from an Italian coast guard motorboat Saturday evening, did a head count and found 140 migrants aboard, including 37 women, said Cmdr. Cosimo Nicastro, of the Italian coast guard. There was no minors aboard.

“They are a little worn” from the ordeal, but in good health, Nicastro told The Associated Press by telephone. “No one is in need of evacuation.”



Authorities were struggling in the choppy waters to transfer water, medicine and blankets aboard a second coast guard vessel to the Pinar, Nicastro said.

The earlier figure on number of migrants had come from the Pinar’s crew, Nicastro said.

On Thursday, the Turkish vessel rescued the clandestine migrants, as well as recovered the body of a dead one, from two boats experiencing problems in the Mediterranean, Nicastro said.

Rome insists that the Pinar is in Malta’s search and rescue area, so Malta should accept the migrants, while the tiny island nation claims the stranded victims are closer to Lampedusa than to Malta.

Italy asked “Malta to contact the vessel (Pinar) because it was nearby and in a position to intervene quickly with a rescue,” Nicastro said. He said Malta agreed and contacted the Turkish vessel, which then plucked the migrants to safety about 40 miles (65 kilometers) from Lampedusa.

Fishing boats and military ships in the area originally alerted Italy and Malta to the migrants’ distress, Nicastro said.

Maltese army authorities said Malta contends that under international maritime conventions, the nearest port of call is obliged to accept rescued travels and insisted it should be Lampedusa.

On Friday night, Italian military helicopters ferried in water, blankets and food to the Pinar, Nicastro said.

But the Turkish news agency Anatolia quoted the daughter of the Pinar’s second captain as saying she received cell phone text messages from her father saying he didn’t know how much longer people aboard “will endure hunger and thirst” and that several sick people were aboard.

___

Associated Press writers George Cini in Malta, Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Andrea Dessi in Rome contributed to this report.

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