An Italian charity ship rescued some 50 migrants at sea off Libya Monday, prompting Rome to warn it was ready to "stop once and for all" such private vessels from bringing those saved to Italy.
Italy's hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has repeatedly declared Italian waters closed to NGO rescue vessels and has left several of them stranded at sea in the past in a bid to force Europe to take its share of asylum seekers.
"Mare Jonio has just rescued a rubber boat in distress that was sinking with around 50 people on board," the Mediterranea collective of aid groups and associations that runs the ship said on Twitter.
Mare Jonio has just rescued a rubber boat in distress that was sinking with around 50 people on board. We are rescuing them. The so called Lybian Coast Guard has arrived lately and it's approaching us.— Mediterranea Saving Humans (@RescueMed) March 18, 2019
Volunteers aboard the Mare Jonio pulled the migrants - reportedly including 12 minors - off a dinghy some 40 nautical miles off the coast of the north African country.
A Libyan coast guard vessel had approached the dinghy while the rescue was underway but left the migrants to the Mare Jonio, which was expected to request permission to bring them to safety in Italy.
It was not immediately clear whether the Mare Jonio had defied an order from the command centre in Rome telling it to leave the rescue to the Libyans.
Italy, with the support of the EU, has since 2017 been training the Libyan coast guard to intercept boats as part of a controversial deal that has seen migrant arrivals to Italy drop off sharply.
NGO ships have drawn fire from Rome by attempting on occasion to stop migrants being taken back to the crisis-hit country, which human rights organisations insist cannot be considered safe for repatriations.
'Facilitating human trafficking'
The interior ministry said it was "working on a directive to reiterate the procedures that must be followed" after sea rescues.
"Saving lives remains a priority, but immediately afterwards the orders of the national authorities of the competent territory must be obeyed, according to the international rules of search and assistance at sea.
"Any deviance from those rules can be read as a premeditated action to bring illegal immigrants to Italy and facilitate human trafficking," it warned, adding that Salvini was "about to sign a directive" on the issue.
Should the Mare Jonio request permission to dock, and be refused, it would be the first such stand-off between the Italian government and an Italian-flagged ship.
"Good luck & thank you. We hope the disembarkation outside of Libya will be faster than what we witnessed before," tweeted Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR's special envoy for the central Mediterranean.
The Mare Jonio is the only privately-run rescue ship currently operating in the central Mediterranean.
The others are either undergoing repairs, docked for a crew change or blocked by administrative or judicial hurdles.
Some 348 migrants have been brought to safety in Italy so far this year, compared to 6,161 in the same period last year.
"Despite a dangerously low SAR (search and rescue) capacity in the Mediterranean due to Italy & EU policy, people continue to risk their lives to seek safety," tweeted Doctors Without Borders.
Some 234 people have died in the Mediterranean in 2019, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
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