Panama revokes registration of last migrant rescue ship in central Mediterranean

MILAN (Reuters) - The Panama Maritime Authority has revoked the registration of search and rescue ship Aquarius 2 in a move that means there will be no charity rescue ships off the Libyan coast in the near future unless the vessel can find a new flag to sail under.

Aquarius 2, the one remaining charity rescue vessel still operating in the Central Mediterranean area, is currently at sea with 58 survivors on board.

The decision by the Panama Authority (PMA) means that once the ship comes into port it will be deflagged and will not be allowed to operate again unless it can find a new flag.

SOS Mediterranee, one of the charities that operates the Aquarius, said in a statement it was reeling from news of the revocation, which it said followed pressure from the Italian government.

“On Saturday ... the Aquarius team was shocked to learn of an official communication from the Panamanian authorities stating that the Italian authorities had urged the PMA to take ‘immediate action’ against the Aquarius,” it said.

Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said the Italian government had applied no pressure on Panama.

A public backlash against the arrival of hundreds of thousands of seaborne newcomers in the past five years helped put Italy’s anti-establishment ruling coalition into office.

Salvini has led a popular crackdown against immigration since his League party and the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement took office in June.

Salvini has previously accused SOS Mediterranee and other charities of acting like a Mediterranean “taxi service” for the migrants.

Salvini said on Sunday that Aquarius 2 had hindered the work of the Libyan coast guard, ignoring instructions.

He said that, according to newspapers, Aquarius 2 was about to have its registration revoked by Panama because it was “illegal and does not respect procedures”.

“They can change their name and flag another thousand times but Italy’s ports will remain shut to these gentlemen,” he said.

Italy has previously attacked the European Union for its lack of support on immigration and has threatened to refuse to back the bloc’s multi-year budget.

Reporting by Stephen Jewkes; Editing by Edmund Blair and Catherine Evans