October 29, 2019 / 3:53 PM / 23 days ago

Italy to let French NGO migrant ship dock after 11 days at sea

ROME (Reuters) - Italy said on Tuesday it would let a French charity rescue ship disembark 104 migrants after the vessel spent 11 days at sea waiting for authorization to dock.

FILE PHOTO: Migrants are seen onboard the Ocean Viking rescue ship in the Sicilian port of Messina, Italy September 24, 2019. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello/File Photo

The interior ministry said in a statement that the Ocean Viking could head to the Sicilian port of Pozzallo, adding that France and Germany had agreed to take in 70 of the migrants.

French charities Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS Méditerranée, which operate the ship, had issued an appeal on Monday asking Europe to designate a safe port for the migrants who picked up off the Libyan coast on Oct. 18.

Amongst those aboard are two pregnant women and 41 minors under the age of 18.

“After days stranded at sea and having endured horrific conditions in Libya and during their journey, finally these people will be brought to safety,” said Michael Fark, the MSF head of mission for Libya and the Mediterranean.

MSF said an agreement had also been reached to let 90 migrants aboard another Mediterranean rescue ship, the Alan Kurdi, disembark. However, there was no immediate confirmation of this from Italy.

German NGO Sea-Eye, which operates the Alan Kurdi, earlier released a video they said showed shots being fired in the air by a man on a boat flying a Libyan flag as they were plucking migrants from a dinghy on Saturday.

League leader Matteo Salvini, who was Italy’s interior minister for 14 months up until August, had closed Italian ports to charity ships, leaving boats stranded in the Mediterranean for many days awaiting authorization to dock.

Salvini denounced Tuesday’s decision to let the Ocean Viking come to port. “Once again the Italian government has dropped its trousers. Once again it is doing a favor to an NGO ... which encourages human traffickers to ply their trade,” he said.

The League’s decision to quit the coalition opened the door for the center-left Democratic Party (PD) to enter government. The PD has pushed for a more moderate immigration policy and has looked to Europe to help share the strain.

However, efforts to set up an automatic EU-wide redistribution system for migrants reaching Italy appears to have floundered and MSF said it was “sorry” that only three countries had agreed to take in the new arrivals.

Salvini says the new government’s more welcoming approach to NGOs has led to an immediate spike in arrivals, with 2,498 boat migrants reaching Italy in September against 947 in the same month last year and 1,854 people coming ashore so far this month against 1,007 in all of October 2018.

Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Susan Fenton

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