French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday called Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini "cynical and irresponsible" in refusing to allow the Aquarius to offload 629 migrants at an Italian port at the weekend.
"The statements concerning Aquarius from France are surprising", the Italian Council stressed, adding that Rome won't tolerate receiving "hypocritical lessons from countries that preferred to divert the head "on the migrant crisis".
Lashing out at the French government, Salvini said France had taken in only a fraction of the 9,816 migrants it had pledged to accept under a 2015 European Union relocation plan.
Branding Italy's decision to close its ports to a boat of 629 migrants "shameful", United Nations refugee chief Filippo Grandi demanded European Union (EU) countries make it as easy as possible for open borders-backing NGOs to continue ferrying immigrants from Africa to Europe.
Italy has defended its decision to refuse to allow the Aquarius rescue ship to dock, saying it has never abandoned the ship and is escorting it to Spain.
The migrant ship Aquarius is now headed to Valencia in Spain.
France sought to take a more conciliatory tone on Wednesday. Italian maritime vessels, however, are still docking in its ports: on Wednesday, an Italian coast guard vessel docked in Catania, Sicily with 932 migrants aboard.
"If an official apology doesn't arrive, Prime Minister Conte would be right not to go to France", Salvini told reporters. According to government figures, Italy has accepted 640,000 migrants since 2014, but the number of arrivals this year is at a five-year low: 14,441 since January.
He has accused charities of working with human traffickers but said Italy would not stop rescuing migrant boats itself.
Sea Watch confirmed it had space and food for 41 passengers, but said it declined to take the migrants from the U.S. Navy ship because Italy had refused to assign the group's rescue vessel a port where it could dock.
Italy has postponed high-level talks with France after Paris accused Rome of acting "irresponsibly" by turning away hundreds of stranded migrants on board a rescue boat. The French president's office said France didn't want to "start a precedent" that would allow some European countries to breach worldwide laws and rely on other EU member states to take in migrants. Conte's office refused to confirm the report.
Macron's comments sparked a fierce response from Rome, which called them "unacceptable" and summoned France's ambassador Wednesday.
"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 member states manage migrants internally.
The U.N. refugee agency has said that approximately 1,900 migrants came to Cyprus in about 40 boat trips since 2015.