Italian media reported Wednesday that the ship "Iuventa," operated by German NGO "Jugend Rettet" (youth to the rescue) had been impounded on the island of Lampedusa.
According to the reports, the ship was seized on the order of a prosecutor based in Trapani, Sicily on suspicion of facilitating illegal immigration. Jugend Rettet is one of the six out of nine NGOs which refused to sign a new code of conduct by the Italian government covering migrant rescues in the Mediterranean. The Berlin-based organization justified their position by saying that the Code failed to prioritize saving human lives.
While investigators said they suspected the boat's crew of committing crimes of "clandestine immigration," Trapani prosecutor Ambrogio Cartosio told reporters that "my personal conviction was that the motive is humanitarian, exclusively humanitarian." However, he also alleged that there were "contacts, meetings and understandings" between the boat's crew and the smugglers.
In a series of statements on Twitter, Jugend Rettet refuted reports that its boat, a fishing vessel converted to a rescue boat in May 2016, had been confiscated, tweeting that their boat was stopped in a "standard procedure" and the crew was being interviewed by officials.
However, by Wednesday, the NGO said in a subsequent statement that it would currently no longer be allowed to operate in the Search and Rescue Zone, where migrants from North Africa have been attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.
Cartosio stressed that no crew members from the Iuventa had been charged and the investigation was ongoing to determine which of them may have made contact with smugglers.
Since the beginning of 2014, about600,000 people mainly from African countries have arrived in Italy via the central Mediterranean route, mainly from Libya. This year, NGO rescue boats saved about a third of the approximately 95,000 people rescued at sea.
Italy, which is facing elections next year, has told its European neighbors it is struggling to deal with the influx of people seeking refuge, but efforts to spread asylum seekers across the EU or stop people embarking on the dangerous Mediterranean crossing have so far largely failed.
Libya support mission approved
On Wednesday, Italy's parliament authorized a limited naval mission to Libyan waters aimed at supporting the country's coastguard in the fight against human traffickers who overload unseaworthy boats with paying migrants and send them toward Europe.
A total of 328 out of 630 members of Italy's parliament voted for the move, which will go to the Senate for approval.
The assistance from Rome is expected to take the form of two ships for logistics and patrol, as well as mechanics to maintain equipment. Italy had hoped to send a larger mission into Libyan waters but downsized the mission following protests from Tripoli.
Libya descended into political chaos and lawlessness following the NATO-backed ouster of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Since then the country has become ahaven for human traffickers.
se, dm/jr (AFP, dpa, epd, KNA, Reuters)