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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

Spain to accept migrant ship that Italy and Malta refused

Halted vessel is carrying 629 rescued migrants, including unaccompanied minors and pregnant women

In this Aug. 29, 2017 file photo, African migrants float on a wooden boat next to a rescue ship during a search and rescue operation conducted by SOS Mediterranee's Acquarius ship and MSF (Doctors Without Borders) NGOs, in the Mediterranean Sea, north of Libyan coast. Darko Bandic / AP
In this Aug. 29, 2017 file photo, African migrants float on a wooden boat next to a rescue ship during a search and rescue operation conducted by SOS Mediterranee's Acquarius ship and MSF (Doctors Without Borders) NGOs, in the Mediterranean Sea, north of Libyan coast. Darko Bandic / AP

Spain offered on Monday to take in a rescue ship that is holding position in the Mediterranean sea with 629 migrants on board after Italy and Malta refused to let it dock.

The Aquarius picked up the migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women, from inflatable boats off the coast of Libya at the weekend.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who took office just more than one week ago, has given instructions for the boat to be admitted to the eastern port of Valencia, his office said in a statement.

The European Union and the United Nations refugee agency had called for a swift end to a political stand-off that left the migrants on the Aquarius at sea after Italy refused to let it dock.

Matteo Salvini, the head of the far-right League party who became interior minister this month vowing to crack down on the influx of migrants from Africa, had blocked the ship, operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders, over the weekend.

"Saving lives at sea is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp is not," Mr Salvini said on Facebook on Monday. "Italy is done bowing its head and obeying. This time there's someone saying no."

Pictures issued by SOS Mediterranée showed hundreds of Africans huddled on board, including a young girl wrapped in a blanket in the arms of a rescue worker.

"People are in distress, are running out of provisions and need help quickly," the UN refugee agency said, urging governments to set aside political considerations.

"Broader issues, such as who has responsibility and how these responsibilities can best be shared between states, should be looked at later," UNHCR special envoy Vincent Cochetel said.

SOS Mediterranée said the ship had enough supplies to feed the migrants, at least for another day, before Spain's acceptance.

Italy has had to deal with hundreds of thousands of migrants in recent years who passed through Libya to reach Europe.

EU law requires that asylum seekers register in the first safe country they reach, but frontline countries such as Italy and Malta have said the burden needs to be shared out across the bloc.

"This is not an inhumane act," said Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, in charge of Italy's ports and coastguard.

"It's common sense. We ask that all of Europe assume responsibility for such a delicate and important issue as is immigration," he said in a TV interview.

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The European Commission had urged action from Italy.

"We are talking about people," commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told a news conference. "The priority of both the Italian and Maltese authorities should be ensuring these people receive the care they need.

"We call on all involved to contribute to a swift resolution so that the people on board the Aquarius vessel may be safely disembarked as soon as possible," Mr Schinas said.

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said on Sunday that he had told his Italian counterpart, Giuseppe Conte, his country would not take the ship.

"We are concerned at Italy authorities' directions given to Aquarius on high seas. They manifestly go against international rules, and risk creating a dangerous situation for all those involved," Mr Muscat said on Twitter.

By law, it would have been difficult for Italy to refuse the boat a safe haven, as its own Coast Guard co-ordinated the rescues, picking up more than 280 migrants in its own vessels before transferring them to the Aquarius to be taken to safety.

Mr Salvini had doubled down on his position, warning another charity ship, the Sea Watch 3, which is patrolling off the Libyan coast, that it may not be allowed to dock in Italy.

"Malta is not acting, France rejects them, and Europe doesn't care," Mr Salvini wrote. "I've had enough."

The Sea Watch still did not have any migrants on board, spokesman Ruben Neugebauer said. While he agreed that there should be a more fair distribution of migrants in the EU, he said Mr Salvini was "making a point at the cost of people in distress. It's highly irresponsible."

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