Italy says it will seize two migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean, citing doubts over their legal status.
Italian authorities said the Lifeline and Seefuchs, operated by the German migrant rescue group Mission Lifeline, were “illegally” flying the Dutch flag.
The Lifeline is carrying 226 migrants rescued off the coast of Libya, Mission Lifeline said.
Separately, the UN refugee agency has reported that 220 migrants drowned in the same area in recent days.
It called for “urgent action” from EU countries.
Why is Italy seizing the ships?
Italy’s new right-wing government has taken a harder stance on rescue ships bringing large numbers of migrants to Italy, which is often the nearest port for those rescued off coast of Libya.
Italy’s Infrastructure Minister Danilo Toninelli said the ship had broken the law by taking the migrants, even though the Libyan coastguard had already intervened to rescue them.
He said Italy would seize both the Lifeline and the Seefuchs to determine their legal status, and said Italy would “once again save the migrants”.
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini initially said in a post on Facebook that the two NGO ships should “go to Holland”, as it was said to be flying under a Dutch flag, and should not dock in Italy.
Whether or not the ship is Dutch is the subject of some debate. The Dutch delegation to the EU said in a tweet that the ships are not registered in the Netherlands, and not flying under its flag.
Mission Lifeline, however, later posted an image on Twitter of a registration document it says proves the ships sail under the Dutch flag.
The group also tweeted that it had carried out another rescue overnight, though details of how many migrants were accepted- and by which ship – have yet to be released.
The NGO’s co-founder, Axel Steier, denied breaking any laws and defended his organisation’s actions.
“In this situation you can’t wait,” he said. “If you have a rescue you prevent people from dying, from drowning and then you have to make the decisions. You can’t wait until someone has a port for you – you have to act immediately.”
Mr Salvini remained undeterred, writing in a Facebook post on Friday morning that Malta should accept the Lifeline and its passengers – and reiterating that the ship should be seized.
Europe’s rescue row
The planned seizure of the Lifeline and Seefuchs comes amid a deepening row over migrant rescues after Italy’s new populist government refused earlier this month to take in a stranded rescue ship carrying 630 migrants.
The Aquarius eventually sailed to Spain after it was also turned away by Malta. It has now resumed its operations at sea.
French President Emmanuel Macron accused the Italian government of “cynicism and irresponsibility” for refusing to let the Aquarius dock.
Then on Thursday, without referring directly to Italy, Mr Macron attacked the “leprosy” of anti-EU feeling among “friends and neighbours”.
Italy’s new far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini hit back at the French president.
“We may be leper populists, but I take the lessons from those who open their own ports. Welcome thousands of migrants and then we can talk,” he said.
Leaders from 10 EU member states will meet in Brussels on Sunday to discuss how best to stem the flow of migrants to the bloc.
The Italian government has said it will not sign up to any EU plan unless it makes helping Italy a priority, while Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary – known as the Visegrad Group – say they will boycott the talks.
Italy’s government wants to deport half a million undocumented migrants, many of whom are housed in squalid reception centres. More than 600,000 have reached Italy from Libya in the past four years.