The Ministry of Defence had previously said the 19,000-tonne assault ship HMS Bulwark was due to set off on 26 April. An MoD spokesman claimed the vessel had not been delayed, saying “it is just that discussions are ongoing between us and EU partners”.
HMS Bulwark had been earmarked to lead Britain’s contribution to an operation European leaders hope will stem the loss of life among refugees fleeing the turmoil in Africa and the Middle East.
An MoD spokesman said: “The Prime Minister was clear at European Council that Britain would be playing its role in tackling the current crisis in the Mediterranean but that our focus would be on saving lives not offering people asylum in the UK.
“Discussions between EU partners remain ongoing to ensure close co-ordination and we are not going to speculate on any operational decisions at this stage.”
HMS Bulwark is to be supported by two UK Border Force cutters and three Royal Navy Merlin helicopters with sophisticated radar designed to spot small surface vessels over long distances. It will also provide a floating refuelling platform for the Merlins – expected to be based in either Malta or Sicily – enabling them to extend the range of their patrols.
The ship is to work in tandem with the surveillance helicopters to provide day and night searches covering ranges of more than 100 miles.
Latest figures yesterday showed that in the three days to Sunday, 6,771 people had been rescued off the coast of Libya from overcrowded rubber dinghies and unseaworthy fishing boats used by smugglers. Ten bodies were found on Sunday on boats or in the sea.
Italian rescue ships ferried thousands of migrants to the country’s southern ports, but crowded shelters on Sicily and on the mainland struggled yesterday to find room for them all.
Some politicians in northern Italy vowed their regions would not take in any of the rescued.
Calm seas and mild temperatures helped bring about the spike in arrivals. The relentless stream of migrants this year is on track to surpass the 170,000 rescued at sea by Italy in 2014.
The navy said a woman who was in labour when she was rescued on Sunday gave birth to a girl aboard one of its patrol ships. Mother and daughter were fine, and the patrol boat, carrying 654 migrants who were saved in four different rescue operations, was heading to port.
Other rescuers had grim tasks. An Italian tugboat, among several commercial vessels picking up migrants, recovered two corpses.
The wave of arrivals set port town mayors and charity organisations scrambling to find beds. Many migrants from Africa will seek asylum because of war or persecution, and hope to reach relatives in northern Europe. Until applications are processed, which could take months, they are supposed to stay in Italy.
Roberto Maroni, the Milan-based governor of Lombardy, vowed not to take any more migrants. “If there is any funding available, it should be spent on our citizens and not for clandestine migrants,” he said.