January 31, 2019 / 2:28 PM / 18 days ago

Migrants disembark in Italy as Rome vows to continue hard line

CATANIA, Italy (Reuters) - Migrants forced to remain on board the ship that rescued them off the coast of Libya almost two weeks ago stepped onto dry land in Sicily on Thursday, with Italy’s government promising to continue to block charity ships from its ports.

The Sea-Watch 3, run by a German humanitarian group, docked in the port of Catania to disembark the 47 people, including 15 minors, that it picked up on Jan. 19.

After hugging crew members, the minors disembarked first. The migrants then boarded buses taking them to shelters where they would be able to make official asylum requests.

It was the second time in a month that the Sea Watch has been forced to spend several days at sea while European Union countries haggled over who would welcome migrants.

Italy had been taking in all boat migrants picked up from unsafe and overcrowded boats off the coast of Libya until a populist government took over last year and shut the ports.

This latest group will be redistributed among eight different member states, including Italy.

“We hope Europe can welcome them and allow them to live the lives they deserve,” Sea Watch said on Twitter.

After Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on Wednesday called for the charity to be put under criminal investigation, Sea Watch also asked for help with potential legal costs.

“We hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” it said on Twitter.

Salvini, who heads the nationalist League party, warned that Italy’s ports would remain closed to humanitarian vessels.

“If another big boat comes illegally to the Italian coast, I’d do the same thing all over again,” he told reporters in parliament on Wednesday.

Slideshow (9 Images)

“If someone were interested in opening an investigation into possible irregularities committed by the non-governmental groups, I’d be happy,” Salvini added.

Sea Watch said it followed international law at all times, and the prosecutor from the nearby city of Syracuse, where the Sea Watch ship had moored to take shelter from bad weather for several days, said the charity had done nothing wrong.

Salvini was placed under investigation last August for alleged abuse of power and holding people against their will after he denied permission for the Italian coastguard ship Diciotti to let a group of mainly Eritrean migrants disembark.

Reporting by Antontio Parrinello in Catania; Additional reporting by Angelo Amante in Rome; Writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Catherine Evans

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