An Italian rescue ship with 46 migrants on board docked Saturday without incident in the Italian port of Lampedusa against an explicit ban after declaring a state of emergency.
Italy's hard-line interior minister Matteo Salvini - who has barred all private rescue ships from entering Italian ports - reacted angrily to the move with a series of rapid-fire tweets, starting with notice that the ship had "broken the law, ignored bans to enter Italian waters."
The manoeuvre was very similar to one made by a German rescue ship one week ago that disobeyed direct orders from port officials to moor in Lampedusa - but apparently without the dramatic counter-manoeuvre by Italian authorities that led to the German ship's knocking against a police boat that attempted to block it.
Television images showed migrants sitting in rows on the bow of Mediterranea Saving Humans' sailboat Alex wearing orange life-jackets; applause could be heard in the background. But there was no immediate movement to disembark.
Mr Salvini on Twitter pointed to an offer from Malta to accept the migrants from the Italian-flagged ship.
The group, which evacuated 13 passengers to the Italian Coast Guard on Friday due to medical conditions, cited "intolerable hygienic conditions on board," for its decision to head into port. It said Lampedusa "is the only possible safe port for landing," as the ship was already in Italian territorial waters.
Meanwhile, the German humanitarian group Sea-Eye also said its rescue ship Alan Kurdi with 65 rescued people on board was sailing toward the Italian island of Lampedusa. But the group indicated that it would wait in international waters, and not seek an immediate confrontation.
Mr Salvini, after the Alex docked, said he would deny the Alan Kurdi any request to enter port.
Earlier, Sea-Eye said "we are not intimidated" by Mr Salvini, "but instead head toward the nearest port of safety." Thirty-nine of its rescued passengers claim to be minors, the youngest of whom is 12, and 48 fled Somalia, Sea-Eye said.
In Berlin, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said Saturday that, as in previous cases, Germany would be prepared to take some of the migrants on board the Alan Kurdi and the Alex "in the framework of a European solution in solidarity." He said he had informed the European Commission of that Friday and asked it to coordinate.
Mr Seehofer, who himself has taken a restrictive line on migration, also urged his Italian counterpart to rethink his policy of closing the country's harbours to humanitarian groups' rescue ships.
The scenario involving the Italian-flagged ship Alex is very similar to that of the Dutch-flagged Sea-Watch 3, which docked at Lampedusa last Saturday after 17 days at sea without receiving any indication that an offer of a port of safety was imminent for the remaining 40 migrants. The captain, 31-year-old Carola Rackete, is under investigation for defying orders and allegedly aiding illegal immigration. A German citizen, she was freed from house arrest by a judge who said the threat involved when the rescue ship bumped against a police boat should be kept in perspective. The migrants remain on the island.
Mr Salvini appeared to be reacting to the fact Ms Rackete is not jailed when he railed on Twitter after the Alex's docking.
"By breaking the law, these jackals are putting at risk the lives of these migrants on board," Mr Salvini continued on Twitter. "Will they also remain unpunished? In a serious country, arrests and seizure of the vessel would be immediate. What will the judges do this time???"
Italy has insisted that the Libyan coast guard intervene in all off-shore rescues and the migrants be taken back to Libya. NGOs say that would be against maritime law since Libya is not considered a safe harbour, as evidenced by the bombing of a migrant centre this week that killed dozens. They also say that Italy is violating maritime law by not providing a safe port to ships carrying out rescues at sea.
Italy argues that the presence of the ships encourages smugglers -something the NGOs deny - and that Italy has been unfairly stuck with the burden of managing arrivals from northern Africa for the rest of Europe.