Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announced a deal, brokered by the EU, to end the uncertainty over the migrants who are now aboard two aid vessels. The eight countries that will take them in include Italy, whose anti-migrant interior minister, Matteo Salvini, had vowed for days that none would reach Italian soil.
The other countries are Germany, France, Portugal, Ireland, Romania, Luxembourg and Netherlands. Early in the stalemate, Muscat had also struck a defiant note, saying his tiny island nation wouldn't let the 49 to set foot on Malta unless the deal included agreement for fellow EU countries to take many of the 249 migrants that Maltese military ships had rescued in its search-and-rescue area in late December.
The deal announced on Wednesday meets his condition: most of the 249 migrants, rescued from Libya-based smugglers' unseaworthy boats, will be taken to other EU countries, while some will remain in Malta.
The Germany-based aid group Sea-Watch, whose vessel Sea-Watch 3, had rescued 32 of the migrants in waters off Libya on Dec. 22, welcomed the decision. "After 19 days at sea, our guests finally have a safe haven," Sea-Watch tweeted. "It is a testament to state failure; politics should never be played at the cost of people in need."
Earlier this week, Sea-Watch said some of those aboard, distraught about the stalemate, which left the boat at the mercy of rough seas for many days, were refusing food to protest the stalemate, and the migrants' physical and psychological health were deteriorating.
Malta last week allowed the boats to shelter near its coasts from the bad weather but wouldn't let them disembark the migrants. "We were not the responsible authority, and we were not the nearest safe port" for the two rescue vessels, Muscat said in a statement Wednesday as a way of explaining why the government refused to let the 49 migrants directly disembark in port.
Italy's populist government split over the fate of those aboard Sea-Watch 3 and another private vessel, Sea-Eye, with Premier Giuseppe Conte saying that Italy was willing to take children and their parents, even as Salvini remained defiant.
The migrants involved in the EU-brokered deals are part of waves of people fleeing poverty and conflict in Africa, Asia or the Middle East, who have risked their lives aboard smugglers' boats to try to reach European shores in recent years.
On Wednesday, in Spain, police there said they broke up a gang that smuggled people and drugs by boat from Morocco into Spain, charging migrants up to 2,000 euros ($2,300) a trip. The European Union's border agency Frontex says about 57,000 migrant crossings were detected last year in Spain, double the figure for 2017. The numbers reaching Spain have surged as Italy's crackdowns on private rescue vessels saw the number of boats and migrants heading across the central Mediterranean toward Italian shores dropping sharply.
AP writers Frances D'Emilio in Rome, David Rising in Berlin and Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal, contributed to this report.