France urges 'cynical' Italy to rethink stance on migrant ship

PARIS (Reuters) - France denounced Italy’s refusal to take in more than 600 migrants stranded aboard the rescue ship Aquarius, accusing the government of “cynicism” and asking Rome to reconsider its position.

Migrants are rescued by staff members of the MV Aquarius, a search and rescue ship run in partnership between SOS Mediterranee and Medecins Sans Frontieres in the central Mediterranean Sea, June 10, 2018. Karpov/handout via REUTERS

Briefing journalists after a cabinet meeting, government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said President Emmanuel Macron had made clear that the country with the nearest coastline to a stranded ship bore responsibility under maritime law.

“There is a degree of cynicism and irresponsibility in the Italian government’s behaviour with regards to this dramatic humanitarian situation,” Griveaux quoted Macron as saying.

The 629 migrants, including 11 children and seven pregnant women, have been drifting in the central Mediterranean aboard the Aquarius since Sunday, when both Italy and Malta shut their ports to it.

Spain unexpectedly offered on Monday to take in the Gibraltar-flagged ship, recognising that several of those on board, whom were picked up off the Libyan coast over the weekend, were in need of medical assistance.

After a string of questions from lawmakers in parliament asking why Paris had remained silent on the issue, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian defended their country’s stance saying Paris was ready to help Spain, but they urged Rome to rethink its position.

“The NGOs have said the time to get to Valencia would be too long given the humanitarian situation on board ... We are solemnly asking Italian authorities to reconsider their position and welcome the refugees on board.”

The ship had sailed north towards Italy but Matteo Salvini, the head of the far-right League party who became interior minister this month and has vowed to curb an influx of migrants from Africa, blocked it and said it should go to Malta instead.

The European Commission had urged member states to act with responsibility, calling on both Italy and Malta to respond.

Philippe said there would only be a European solution to the migrant crisis from Africa, but defended Paris’ stance saying no other European country had done as much as France to stabilise West Africa and Libya.

Reporting by Marine Pennetier and John Irish; editing by Mark Heinrich