ROME (Reuters) - Interior Minister Matteo Salvini let a charity boat carrying 30 rescued migrants dock at an Italian port on Friday, but said the vessel would be impounded and not let out to sea again.
The migrants, including two pregnant women, a baby and four unaccompanied minors, were picked up by the Mare Jonio on Thursday some 40 miles (64 km) off the coast of Libya as their rubber boat was sinking.
The Italian government has repeatedly accused charity rescuers of being complicit with people smugglers, who charge large sums to help migrants get to Europe, and Salvini has closed the country’s ports to their boats.
NGOs deny the accusation, but most of them have stopped sailing in the central Mediterranean given the uncompromising position of the Italian government and repeated investigations by magistrates.
However, the Mare Jonio, which is operated by the Italian charity Mediterranea, has so far defied the pressure and it was briefly impounded in March in Lampedusa after bringing dozens of migrants ashore.
Salvini said on Thursday it would not be allowed to dock with the latest rescued group, but he changed tack on Friday, apparently after being told that the vessel would be seized.
“The last voyage for the boat ... Mare Jonio. Blocked and seized. Bye bye,” Salvini wrote on Twitter.
The boat’s head of mission, Beppe Caccia, said police had boarded the Mare Jonio, but had not told him they were planning to detain it. He denied any wrongdoing and shrugged off the threat of legal action.
“We operated in full respect of the law,” Caccia said in a video message posted on la Repubblica newspaper website. “The smiles of the child we saved yesterday will make any legal problems worth it.”
NGOs say Italy’s closed-port policy has made crossings much more dangerous, with very few charities out looking to save lives. Underscoring the point, the Alarm Phone organization, that monitors distress calls, said on Friday at least 70 people had drowned in a shipwreck off Tunisia.
New migrant arrivals to Italy have plummeted since Salvini took office last June, with 873 migrants coming to shore so far this year, according to official data, down 91 percent on the same period in 2018 and down 98 percent on 2017.
Unusually, the Italian navy also took part in a rescue mission on Thursday, picking up some 36 migrants from a sinking boat off Libya. They were brought to Sicily on Friday after France, Malta, Luxembourg and Germany agreed to take them in.
Reporting by Angelo Amante; Editing by Crispian Balmer