A migrant rescue ship has been seized in Italy for refusing to hand over rescued migrants to Libya. The NGO said that would have been illegal, and insisted that the rescue took place legally in international waters.
A Spanish migrant rescue charity said Monday its ship has been impounded by Italian authorities on suspicion of aiding illegal immigration.
A ship belonging to the non-governmental organization (NGO) Proactiva Open Arms took 216 migrants intercepted in the Mediterranean to the Sicilian port of Pozzallo on Saturday.
Catania Prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro on Sunday ordered the ship's seizure and opened an investigation into the captain and two NGO officials, Italian media reported.
"They are accusing us of criminal association and abetting illegal migration for refusing to hand over women and children to Libyans," the NGO's founder and director, Oscar Camps, wrote on Twitter.
On Thursday, the Proactiva Open Arms ship saved two boats and refused to hand over the migrants to the Libyan coastguard after they set out to intercept the boats.
The NGO said it was in international waters and the ship was threatened by the Libyan coastguard. During the standoff, a Maltese boat evacuated a critically ill 3-month-old baby and its mother.
However, European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said on Monday that "the Libyan coastguard was operating within its territorial waters" when it intercepted the migrant rescue charity ship.
Camps said the NGO ship was eventually allowed to take the migrants to Italy after waiting 48 hours for permission from Italian authorities. He criticized all sides for "preventing the rescue of lives at risk in the open sea in order to forcibly return them to an unsafe country – such as Libya" in violation of international law.
With EU backing, Italy has provided equipment and training to the Libyan coastguard to intercept migrants before they are picked up by NGO ships and brought to Italy. The policy, as well as the holding of migrants in Libya to await repatriation to their home countries and processing of asylum applications for Europe, has been sharply criticized by human rights groups amid reports of abuse in Libyan detention facilities.
More than 600,000 migrants have landed in Italy from North Africa since 2013, prompting a political backlash and increase in support for right-wing groups in Italy.
Matteo Salvini, whose far-right League party and its allies made big gains in March 4 elections, congratulated Zuccaro on Twitter: "Finally an Italian prosecutor is blocking the trafficking of human beings!"
Zuccaro last year said he suspected migrant saving NGOs of working with Libyan people smugglers. A parliamentary investigation found no such cooperation, but the Italian government developed a code of conduct for migrant saving charities.
Signed by Proactiva Open Arms, the code commits NGOs "not enter Libyan territorial waters, except in situations of grave and imminent danger ... and not obstruct search and rescue by the Libyan coastguard."
It is not the first time Italian authorities have impounded a migrant charity ship. In August, a German ship belonging to the NGO "Jugend Rettet" was impounded on accusation it aided illegal immigration. A hearing for the charity to get the ship back is scheduled for April 23.
cw/kl (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)