Malta casts doubts on surviving Eritreans' claims :

Malta casts doubts on surviving Eritreans' claims :

Valletta, Malta - Malta's army chief admitted Saturday his soldiers provided fuel to five Eritrean migrants who were stranded at sea but cast doubts on their claims that 73 people died on board the same dinghy. The army sent a patrol boat to the area to offer assistance but according to army chief Carmel Vassallo the immigrants adamantly refused to be taken to Malta.

He told a news conference that the four men and one woman were looking "relatively fresh" and the dinghy appeared to be "good as new."

An Italian coast guard patrol on Thursday rescued five Eritreans, found suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion, and floating in a rubber dinghy south of the Italy's Mediterranean islet of Lampedusa.

The five said that 73 of their fellow would-be immigrants died at sea after they sailed from Libya 20 days ago. But the story has been mired in conflicting versions, amid a potential diplomatic row between Italy and Malta.

When the dinghy was spotted for the first time by an airplane that forms part of the EU's Frontex mission it was in the Libyan search- and-rescue area and had only five people on board, Malta's Foreign Minister Tonio Borg said.

Despite the incident, Borg said Malta has no intention of reducing its search-and-rescue zone.

He told the news conference: "Our search-and-rescue zone is not for sale," though he did not rule out dialogue with Italy about the management of this zone.

His Italian counterpart Franco Frattini told the newspaper Corriere della Sera that it is clear Malta lacks the instruments, such as number of boats and crews, to control such a wide area.