Migrant ship carrying more than 900 people docks in Sicily

To ensure safe passage, 500 people were transferred off the Aquarius to Italian coast guard and Navy boats for the journey to Spain.

The U.N. refugee agency's chief, Italian national Filippo Grandi, told Reuters it was "shameful" that two European countries refused to take in vulnerable migrants.

Italy had on Wednesday insisted that Macron apologise for accusing its populist new government of "cynicism and irresponsibility" for refusing to take in 629 migrants onboard the Aquarius rescue ship.

Italy's new populist government came under fire Tuesday from its European Union neighbours after refusing to let a foreign NGO boat carrying 629 mostly African migrants dock in Italy.

Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio said on Thursday he still expects French President Emmanuel Macron to apologize for critical comments he made about Italian immigration policy two days ago.

Italy's refusal to accept the ship marked the first major anti-migrant move since far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini took office in June.

A migrant receives clothes from a staff member on the MV Aquarius, a search and rescue ship run in partnership between SOS Mediterranee and Medecins Sans Frontieres on their way to Spain, June 13, 2018.

"Europe must stick together", she said, acknowledging Italy's concern that it had taken in many migrants but fellow European Union countries were not showing sufficient solidarity.

"With my German and Austrian colleagues. we will propose a new (immigration) initiative", Salvini said, adding that it would apply both to the EU's external borders and to how the bloc's countries manage migrants internally. In practice, the policy has placed a heavy burden on Italy and Greece, where hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers have arrived in recent years. Across the European Union, only a third of the 98,255 migrants that were supposed to be relocated under the scheme had been relocated by the time it ended past year.

It's true that Italy has shouldered an out-sized responsibility for saving lives at sea - including in waters well outside its designated search-and-rescue area - and for processing and accommodating disembarked migrants and asylum seekers.

Earlier Wednesday, Salvini accused France of having caused the instability in Libya that has allowed smuggling networks to thrive by spearheading the 2011 NATO-led military campaign that led to the downfall of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

The Spanish government said it is expecting ships carrying 630 migrants to arrive in the port of Valencia on Sunday morning instead of Saturday after bad weather forced the convoy to take a detour.

The port of Valencia is some 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) from where the vessel had been on standby.

- Winfield reported from Rome.

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