September 2, 2019 / 10:21 AM / 14 days ago

Migrants disembark from German rescue ship seized in Italy

MILAN (Reuters) - More than 100 migrants aboard a German migrant rescue ship that had been stranded at sea for a week were allowed to disembark in Sicily on Monday after Italian police confiscated the boat.

Migrants rest after arriving with rescue ship Eleonore at the Italian port of Pozzallo, despite a ban by the Italian authorities, Italy September 2, 2019. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello

The ship’s captain had earlier set course for the Sicilian port of Pozzallo, citing an emergency because of bad weather and sparking a new standoff between rescuers and Italy’s far-right interior minister just as he looks set to lose his job.

“The people who were aboard the Eleonore for eight days now land in Pozzallo. They are first searched by the police and then handed over to the Red Cross,” a journalist onboard the ship said in a tweet, posting a photo of the migrants coming ashore.

The boat’s captain, Claus-Peter Reisch, had earlier said he had decided to enter Italian waters and head for shelter, in defiance of the authorities, because of storms.

“After eight days of waiting for a safe harbor, after countless attempts to convince states to care for 104 people, tonight the weather has decided,” he tweeted.

“I need to declare Eleonore a case of emergency due to the life-threatening situation on board.”

Axel Steier, head of Mission Lifeline, the German charity which operates the ship, told Reuters people aboard were soaked and at risk of hypothermia. Photos of the ship posted on social media showed migrants huddling on the deck under the rain.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the League and interior minister in Italy’s outgoing government, signed a decree last week banning the Eleonore from entering Italian waters as part of his closed-door policy on migrants arriving by boat from Africa.

A succession of charity vessels have struggled over the past year to bring migrants rescued at sea to Italian shores as Salvini has taken a tough line.

Salvini is on the verge of leaving the interior ministry after he decided to pull his League party from a coalition with the 5-Star Movement. 5-Star is now in talks to form a new government with the center-left Democratic Party (PD), which is highly critical of Salvini’s uncompromising stance.

“Laws and borders will be respected. If someone thinks he can ignore them without consequences, he is making a big mistake ... I am doing and will do everything to defend Italy,” Salvini said in a statement on the Eleonore’s attempt to dock.

As the Eleonore arrived in Pozzallo, the Mare Jonio, a rescue ship operated by an Italian non-governmental organization, docked at Lampedusa with 31 people aboard, ending its own stand-off with Salvini.

The Mare Jonio picked up around 100 migrants adrift off Libya in a rubber dinghy last Wednesday. Many of those rescued were women and young children who were transferred to another ship and brought ashore last week.

Salvini has been using the issue of immigration to try to drive a wedge between 5-Star and the PD, and has called for a snap election. However, his efforts look likely to fail and the new government could take office before the end of the week.

Reporting by Francesca Landini in Milan and Tassilo Hummel in Berlin; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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