Ship with 42 migrants defies ban and nears Italian port

June 26, 2019 - 12:59 pm

MILAN (AP) — A German humanitarian ship carrying 42 migrants rescued off Libya two weeks ago entered Italian waters Wednesday and was within sight of the southernmost island of Lampedusa in defiance of an explicit ban by the country's hard-line interior minister.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini responded, saying he wouldn't allow any of the migrants to disembark, and threatened to deploy law enforcement. He has insisted the rescue ship should have continued on to Malta, Tunisia or northern European ports during a two-week standoff with the Italian government.

"The right to defend our borders is sacred," Salvini said.

Since the ship operated by German group Sea-Watch flew a Dutch flag, Italy requested "formal steps" from the Netherlands through its embassy in The Hague, the Interior Ministry said Wednesday.

By early evening, the ship was some 2 to 3 nautical miles off Lampedusa and had been boarded by Italian financial police, according to Sea-Watch spokesman Ruben Neugebauer.

"We are waiting for Italian authorities now. There is not much more we can do. We will not run away," Neugebauer said.

He said the crew requested permission to port in Malta and was turned down. Sea-Watch also asked the European Union's executive commission to intervene and help find a port that will allow the ship, Neugebauer said.

The European Commission had been in touch with "several member states" by midday to identify a port where the migrants could disembark and countries willing to take the passengers in after that, spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said. She said no decisions were made.

Sea-Watch said that the migrants had become desperate after the European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday rejected their appeal to be allowed to disembark in Italy.

Those on board are among 53 that the group said it rescued June 12 from a rubber boat off Libya in international waters. In the meantime, 11 have been evacuated to Italy for medical reasons.

"Their situation is now more desperate than ever," the group said in a statement. "As a result, today at noon, the captain was forced to enter Italian territorial waters under emergency law."

The group's cultural mediator, Haidi Sadik, said many on board have been tortured in Libya. "But even if this was not the case, any person rescued at sea, by law has to be brought to a place of safety. These are people with basic needs and basic rights. A rescue operation is not finished until every single person rescued has both feet on the ground," Sadik said.

It is the latest standoff since Italy's populist government began refusing port last year to humanitarian rescue ships. Salvini claims the boat's aid migrant traffickers by waiting off the Libyan coast to pick up migrants from unseaworthy vessels that couldn't make it all the way to Europe.

He also is trying to pressure on Europe to come up with a solution to take pressure from migrant arrivals off Italy. EU rules require the country asylum-seekers reach first to consider applications for protection, a process that has kept new arrivals in Italy for extended periods.

In Turkey, where an EU agreement with the government has stem the number of Europe-bound migrants, officials said Wednesday that a van carrying dozens of migrants ignored orders to stop and sped past a police checkpoint before crashing into a wall.

Ten migrants were killed and about 30 others were injured in the crash. Many migrants try to enter European Union member Greece from Turkey by sea, making a relatively short crossing to nearby Greek islands. Others take a northern land route.

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