VALLETTA (Reuters) - Malta's armed forces saved 180 migrants in two rescue operations in the Mediterranean on Monday, less than 24 hours after picking up another group of 69.
The army said a patrol boat picked up 28 migrants from a dinghy 71 miles (114 km) south-west of Malta and another 152 packed onboard a wooden vessel close by -- the largest such rescue mission for many months.
On Sunday, a Maltese patrol boat rescued 69 migrants from another wooden boat in distress south-west of the small Mediterranean island.
However, a further 49 migrants remained blocked at sea days after they were picked up by two NGO rescue ships, with both Malta and Italy refusing to take them in as part of a concerted European effort to halt migration flows from Africa.
The Sea-Watch 3 rescued 32 people on December 22 while the Sea-Eye's Professor Albrecht Penck rescued 17 people on Saturday. Both boats are operated by German NGOs.
Jan Ribbeck, head of mission on the Professor Albrecht Penck vessel, said maritime law stated that rescued people had to be moved to land as soon as possible.
"It is utterly unscrupulous that no single European state is taking this responsibility," he said in a statement, urging nearby Malta to take in the migrants for eventual redistribution among several EU countries, as has happened in the past.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) also called for the migrants to be allowed into a safe port before forecast bad weather arrived.
"States need to implement a regional arrangement that provides shipmasters with clarity and predictability on where to disembark refugees and migrants rescued in the Mediterranean,” the U.N. refugee body said in a statement.
Italy this year led the way into clamping down on migrants seeking to come to Europe in search of a better life. It has barred NGO rescue boats from docking in Italian ports and offered more help to Libya to prevent people from leaving.
According to latest data provided by the Italian government on Dec. 28, some 12,977 migrants entered Italy this year via boats from Libya, down 87.9 percent on 2017 levels and 92.8 percent on 2016.
(Reporting by Chris Scicluna; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Louise Heavens)