New Italian government reaches EU deal on migrant rescue boat

ROME (Reuters) - Italy said on Thursday it had done a deal with EU countries to share out migrants aboard a charity ship at sea in the Mediterranean, resolving the first of what may be repeated episodes that will test the new government in Rome.

The Ocean Viking, run by French charities SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders, is carrying 82 people that it rescued in various operations off Libya this week, and has requested a safe port.

The government, which was sworn in last week, has promised a change of tack compared with the previous administration in which far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini closed Italy’s ports to migrant rescue boats.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said after a meeting of his top ministers on Thursday that “several EU countries” had agreed to take in the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking, “which will ensure a rapid and suitable solution” for them.

Nicola Zingaretti, head of the center-left Democratic Party (PD), which now governs with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, tweeted that a “positive solution” had been found thanks to the involvement of other EU countries.

However no details were given and a spokeswoman for SOS Mediterranee told Reuters they had not received any indication that their boat could dock at an Italian port.

The Ocean Viking is currently midway between Malta and the Italian island of Lampedusa. The migrants on board are all African and include 17 minors, the spokeswoman said.

Salvini’s hard line on immigration fueled the popularity of his League party, which pulled out of its coalition with 5-Star last month in a vain attempt to trigger new elections. Instead, 5-Star formed a coalition with the PD.

Salvini on Wednesday challenged the government to keep the Ocean Viking out.

“We’ll see how they behave, we’ll see if Italy goes back to being the only migrant landing platform for the whole of Europe,” he said in a tweet.

Reporting by Gavin Jones and Angelo Amante; Editing by Giles Elgood