VALLETTA (Reuters) - Malta has stopped a small aircraft used to search for migrant boats in the Mediterranean from operating out of the country, the German maritime rescue NGO Sea Watch said on Wednesday.
A Maltese government spokesman confirmed that the aircraft had been grounded and a full statement was expected later in the day.
The move appeared to be part of efforts by both Malta and neighbouring Italy to make it near impossible for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to use them as bases to help rescue migrants adrift off the nearby Libyan coast.
"From now on no search flights in the search area north of the Libyan coast are possible anymore," Sea Watch said.
It said the Moonbird aircraft, which is operated by Sea Watch and the Swiss Humanitarian Pilots Initiative, had been involved in the rescue of some 20,000 people.
"More than 1,000 would have drowned if the Moonbird crew had not spotted their sinking boats at the last second," it said.
Last week Malta said it had closed its harbours to all NGO ships after allowing a vessel operated by the German charity Mission Lifeline to dock and disembark 133 migrants.
Italy and Malta had criticised the ship for defying Italian coastguard orders and picking up the migrants rather than leave the task to the Libyan Coastguard.
The ship's captain was taken to court in Malta on Monday and accused of registration irregularities. The Lifeline was detained pending further investigations.
Earlier Malta had also followed Italy in banning the rescue ship Aquarius, operated by Doctors Without Borders, forcing it to undertake a long trip to Spain to disembark migrants there.
Another NGO rescue ship, the Sea Watch III, was blocked from leaving Valletta Harbour on Sunday, for undisclosed reasons.
Malta, like Italy, has insisted that NGO ships must not obstruct national coastguards from rescuing migrants.
(Reporting by Christopher Scicluna; Editing by Gareth Jones)