BRUSSELS (Reuters) - German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said on Thursday he wanted to extend the European Union's naval mission in the Mediterranean, setting the stage for another standoff with his Italian anti-immigration peer Matteo Salvini.
The mandate of the Sophia mission, which contributed to lowering the number of refugees and migrants reaching Europe across the sea from Libya, expires at the end of March.
Italy has previously threatened to withdraw from it unless the migrants rescued at sea by Sophia vessels are not shared out among EU states rather than being brought to Italian ports, as is currently the case.
"I want Sophia to be continued and will do what is in my power to support the operation," Seehofer told journalists in Brussels on the sidelines of talks among EU interior ministers.
Salvini, who did not attend the Thursday meeting, has built his political reputation in Italy on an uncompromising anti-immigration stance, and the EU is concerned he may be looking for another public fight on the matter to win points at home ahead of EU parliamentary elections in May.
Other EU states are divided over migration, with some not keen to welcome in migrants picked up from the Mediterranean.
A diplomat in Rome said Salvini was keen to see Operation Sophia concentrate on training the Libyan coastguard, so its boats could stop migrants in Libyan waters and bring them back to the north African state rather than continue towards Europe.
Political tensions over migration remain high despite the fact that the numbers of new arrivals via the central Mediterranean, where Sophia ships patrol, have plummeted.
Italy says just 335 migrants have come ashore since the start of this year against 5,457 in the same period last year.
A public spat over migration between Rome and Berlin kept EU national leaders locked in difficult negotiations through the night during a summit on migration last June. The next EU summit is due on March 21-22.
(Reporting by Peter Maushagen and Clare Roth, Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Rome; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska)