Italy to 'block and seize' refugee rescue ship

Matteo Salvini allows the Mare Jonio carrying 30 rescued people to land in Italy saying it was the ship's 'last voyage'.

    The Italian-flagged rescue vessel Mare Jonio rescued 30 migrants off the coast of Libya [File: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters]
    The Italian-flagged rescue vessel Mare Jonio rescued 30 migrants off the coast of Libya [File: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters]

    The Italian government has allowed two groups of refugees and migrants to disembark in Italy despite the country's "closed ports" policy, after European countries agreed to take in some of the rescued people and officials impounded a charity ship that brought others.

    The charity vessel carrying 30 migrants rescued from a rubber boat off the coast of Libya by the aid group Mediterranea landed at the Italian port of Lampedusa on Friday.

    Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini initially said "ports will remain closed" to the Italian aid group's ship, the Mare Jonio, but reversed that decision when authorities said they would impound the boat. 

    "The last voyage for the boat ... Mare Jonio. Blocked and seized. Bye bye," Salvini wrote on Twitter.

    The boat's head of mission, Beppe Caccia, said police had boarded the Mare Jonio but had not told him they were planning to detain it. He denied any wrongdoing and shrugged off the threat of legal action.

    "Seizure is an act to stop us. But it's important to us that the people are safe," the group tweeted.

    Another 36 refugees and migrants rescued by the Italian navy in the Mediterranean in a separate mission were allowed to land in Sicily on Friday under a European Union deal that means many will be transferred to other countries in the region, the government said.

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    "I thank France, Malta, Luxembourg and Germany for the solicitude with which, within a few hours, they said they were ready to welcome" some of them, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said in a statement on Friday.

    The military boat that plucked them from a stricken vessel on Thursday was not on a dedicated humanitarian mission.

    'Criminalise humanitarian efforts'

    Meanwhile, at least 65 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean Sea on Friday when their boat sank in international waters off the Tunisian coast, according to the UN agency for refugees. 

    The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said 16 people survived the boat's capsizing, making it one of the deadliest incidents involving refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe by sea this year.

    Tunisia's defence ministry said the boat had left from the Libyan port of Zouara aiming to reach Italy.

    Libya's west coast is a main departure point for African migrants hoping to reach Europe by paying human traffickers, though numbers have dropped due to an Italian-led effort to disrupt smuggling networks and support the Libyan coast guard.

    Rome has taken increasingly hardline anti-immigration stances, with Salvini signing an order last month banning charity vessels from rescuing people at sea.

    "All persons rescued from the Mediterranean should be allowed to disembark in a safe port. This is just the latest in Salvini's efforts to undermine - and indeed criminalise - humanitarian efforts to save lives," Judith Sunderland, associate Europe director of Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera, referring to the initial refusal to allow the aid ship to land. 

    The Mare Jonio was briefly impounded in March in the Italian island of Lampedusa after bringing dozens of refugees and migrants ashore, but released after a week.

    The Italian government's refusal to let refugees and migrants disembark at its ports led to the collapse of EU-wide military search-and-rescue patrols in March.

    Germany had previously withdrawn from the mission, known as Operation Sophia, saying Rome's position was undermining the whole project.

    After Italy closed its waters to rescue boats, European nations failed to reach agreement on which countries should take most of those saved at sea. Member states are continuing to work on "a solution for disembarkation," the European Council said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies