Italy let a boat carrying 37 African shipwreck victims moor near a port in Sicily and promised humanitarian assistance, but it stopped short of letting it dock, the Interior Ministry said yesterday.

Italy has refused to let the German-owned boat land, saying the Africans, thought to be mostly refugees from Sudan, should have applied for asylum in Malta.

Yesterday, after an emergency request from the ship's captain, the government decided to let the boat anchor in the harbour of Porto Empedocle, about a mile from shore, and sent medical assistance.

According to the website of the German aid organisation that owns the ship of the same name, Cap Anamur, the Africans were rescued from a rubber dinghy with engine failure drifting in the Mediterranean.

"We are simply asking to be allowed to enter the port of Empedocle as the situation on board becomes more and more tense," Elias Bierdel, head of Cap Anamur said in a statement.

"Those who hinder us from bringing shipwrecked men to a safe port must take full responsibility for their actions." The group says it is dedicated to helping refugees in distress at sea.

Italy's Interior Ministry indicated it suspected someone aimed to profit from the situation and said it would investigate the legal liability of the ship's captain over the refugees' request for asylum.

"It is no mystery to anyone that international law, democratic order and even the most elemental principles of human solidarity are used by ruthless criminals that earn billions of euros a year by exploiting illegal immigration and human trafficking," the ministry said in a statement.

Italy has come under pressure from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to let the refugees disembark in Sicily. The Vatican also called for the refugees to be helped.

"It is not important now to debate who should recognise the asylum status and give asylum to these refugees fleeing war and poverty," Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano said. "Now it is necessary to respond to a humanitarian emergency ... there will be time later for treaties and laws."

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