Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is trying to find countries willing to take in some 450 migrants rescued from an overcrowded ship in the Mediterranean on Saturday, a source at the premier's office said.
A ship operated by EU border agency Frontex and a vessel owned by Italy's tax police picked up the migrants near the Italian island of Linosa and more than 100 nautical miles from Malta, which rejected pressure from Rome on Friday to rescue them.
Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is leading a high-profile campaign to exclude humanitarian rescue ships from Italian ports and has said the migrants will not be allowed to land in Italy.
Eight of the migrants who needed medical assistance were taken to the Italian island of Lampedusa for treatment, the source said.
The source, who asked not to be named, said Salvini had spoken with Conte on the telephone about how to resolve the situation.
"The migrants could be distributed immediately among European countries, or Italy would contact Libya to send them back to where they came from," the source said.
A third option would be to leave the migrants on the ships temporarily while their asylum requests are considered, the source added.
The source said Conte would write to EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, European Council President Donald Tusk and other European heads of state to urge them to apply the European principles on migrants that were restated at a summit in June.
"Italy is no longer willingly to take on, alone, a problem that affects all European countries," the source said.
Late on Friday, Malta said the people traveling on the packed vessel were Italy's responsibility.
In two similar stand-offs between Rome and Valletta since Italy's new populist government took office, migrants ended up in Spain and in Malta.
According to international law, refugees cannot be returned to a place where their lives are in danger. Both the United Nations and EU have acknowledged that Libya is not safe.
Earlier this week, however, Salvini asked EU interior ministers to declare Libya a place of safety where migrants can be taken after they are picked up at sea. German, Austrian and French ministers agreed it could be done, Salvini said.
(Reporting by Francesca Landini; Editing by Helen Popper)