Spain sends navy ship to save migrants as Italian prosecutor intervenes

More than 80 migrants remain on board rescue ship 'Open Arms'

A migrant reacts as he disembarks the Spanish rescue ship Open Arms NGO, after it arrived in Lampedusa, Italy, August 20, 2019. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane
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Spain sent a naval patrol boat to pick up migrants on a charity rescue boat stranded off the Italian island of Lampedusa for days, after several people jumped overboard in a desperate bid to swim ashore.

But as the Audaz, with a crew of 62, departed Rota in south-western Spain during the early evening on Tuesday, an Italian prosecutor ordered the migrants must be allowed to land in Lampedusa.

Prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio also ordered seizure of the Open Arms charity vessel after inspecting the Spanish ship on which migrants have spent 19 days, and "given the difficult situation on board", a judicial source said.

Mr Patronaggio intervened as part of his investigation into kidnapping allegations and refusing to obey orders against hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

But Mr Salvini hit back in a post on Facebook, saying: “If anybody thinks they can scare me with the umpteenth complaint and wants a trial, they’re mistaken.”

Madrid announced it was sending the patrol boat shortly after 15 migrants jumped into the water, some without life jackets, after days on board within swimming distance of the port of Lampedusa, which Mr Salvini has closed to migrant rescue ships.

They were rescued and taken to Lampedusa, said a spokeswoman for the charity Proactiva Open Arms, which operates the ship.

The long wait has led to fights and suicide threats.

Proactiva Open Arms said the situation was “out of control”, with some of the migrants stuck for 19 days after being rescued at sea off the coast of Libya, many suffering post-traumatic stress.

The Audaz was expected to take three days to reach Lampedusa. It would then escort the Open Arms vessel to Palma de Mallorca in Spain's Balearic Islands, the government said.

The navy would look after the migrants from the Open Arms, which has been anchored since Thursday off Lampedusa, seeking permission to dock.

“With this measure, Spain will this week solve the humanitarian emergency,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez tweeted.

There were initially 147 migrants on the ship, mainly African but as the days passed, some were evacuated for medical care and all minors were allowed to disembark.

More than 80 are left on board.

France, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg have offered to take them in but Mr Salvini still refused to allow migrant rescue vessels to dock.

“Being firm is the only way to stop Italy from becoming Europe’s refugee camp again,” he tweeted.

Mr Salvini has pulled his party out of Italy’s ruling coalition, hoping to topple the 14-month-old government and trigger early elections, which polls suggest his anti-immigration League party and its right-wing allies could win.

On Tuesday, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced he would resign.

To try to break the standoff, Spain at the weekend offered up its southern port of Algeciras, which the charity said could not be reached because of the distance and unrest on board.

Madrid then suggested Mallorca in the Balearic Islands, which is closer but still about 1,000 kilometres from Lampedusa.

The charity described the offer as “totally incomprehensible” and continued to demand the ship be allowed to dock in Lampedusa.

Spain’s Minister of Defence, Margarita Robles, slammed the Italian Interior Minister for the situation.

"What Salvini is doing in relationship with the Open Arms is a disgrace to humanity as a whole," Ms Robles said Monday.

Mr Salvini, she said on Tuesday, “has shown he doesn’t care about human lives”.

Shortly after he came to power in June 2018, Mr Sanchez made international headlines by agreeing to allow 630 migrants stranded on another charity rescue ship, the Aquarius, to disembark in Spain.

Both Italy and Malta had refused entry to the migrants.

His socialist government then allowed the Open Arms to take migrants it had rescued on the Mediterranean to Spain, most recently in December 2018.

But after that, Spain had refused entry to migrant rescue boats.