By Antonio Denti
MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) - The migrant rescue ship Aquarius, source of a dispute between Italy and Malta in June after both refused to accept more than 600 people it had picked up, will begin a new mission in the southern Mediterranean on Wednesday, organisers said.
The 77-metre vessel, operated by Franco-German charity SOS Mediterranee, will set sail from Marseille on its tenth operation of the year, having already rescued about 3,000 people during 2018, many fleeing from the shores of Libya.
"(The ship) goes back to sea this afternoon," Francis Vallat, president of SOS Mediterranee, told reporters.
"If only one reason was needed, it is that during the month of June, according to the latest figures, there were seven times as many deaths this year than in June last year because of the lack of NGO rescue ships. We're going back."
In June, the Aquarius picked up 629 migrants, including scores of children and seven pregnant women, off the coast of Libya. It planned to take them to the nearest European port, the usual practise with such rescue missions.
But the then new Italian government, a coalition including the anti-immigrant League party, asked the ship to go to Malta rather than Italy. Malta said it was not the appropriate destination or capable of taking the migrants in.
This led to a standoff that drew in the European Union and France. Political tensions have persisted between Rome and Paris since.
Eventually, the migrants were taken in by Spain, which is now facing a renewed flood of people fleeing North Africa.
The Aquarius is one of a number of NGO-supported ships that have carried out rescue operations in the southern Mediterranean, alongside the Italian navy and EU-led missions.
More than 10,000 migrants have drowned in the region since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Italy, which has brought ashore more than 650,000 migrants since 2014, wants migrants returned to where they left from. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has accused SOS Mediterranee and other charities of acting like a Mediterranean "taxi service" for the migrants.
Frederic Penard, director of operations for SOS Mediterranee, said there was no question of the Aquarius rescuing migrants and taking them back to Africa.
"We will always refuse to disembark people in Libya," he said. "Libya cannot be considered a safe port. Everyone agrees with that for the moment."
(Additional reporting by Maya Barkin; Writing by Luke Baker; editing by David Stamp)