World

Migrants disembark rescue ship in Italy

By AAP Newswire

Nearly one hundred migrants who were stranded on a rescue ship off the coast of Lampedusa have disembarked on the Italian island, ending a prolonged stand-off between the Spanish charity operating the vessel and the government in Rome.

The migrants, mainly from Africa, were removed from the Open Arms ship after an Italian prosecutor ordered its seizure and the evacuation of the people on board.

The ship docked at Lampedusa's harbour on Tuesday night.

The Open Arms ship had rescued the migrants heading for Europe off the Libyan coast.

But after Italy refused to let it dock the ship had been stranded at sea for nearly three weeks, with the charity saying that the migrants were distressed and urgently needed to find shelter.

Open Arms' director and founder, Oscar Camps, confirmed earlier on Twitter that the ship would be seized temporarily, adding it was "a cost that Open Arms assumes to ensure that people on board can be served."

"We consider it essential to prioritise the migrants' health and safety in this humanitarian emergency," he said.

Spain sent a naval vessel on Tuesday afternoon to rescue the migrants and take them to Mallorca after some of them jumped overboard.

But the Spanish navy is only due to reach Lampedusa in three days and Open Arms repeatedly said that the situation on board was desperate and some migrants were suicidal.

The passengers were sleeping jammed together on deck and sharing two toilets.

Italy has taken a tough line on migrant entry, saying it has borne too much responsibility for handling African migration to Europe. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini says the charity-run ships have become "taxis" for people smugglers.

Dozens of migrants have been taken ashore since the ship entered Italian waters because they were said to be minors or ill.

Salvini suggested on Tuesday that the charity was exaggerating the problems on board. Of eight migrants taken ashore on Monday night for urgent medical attention, he said, only two had health problems.

"Spanish NGO, Spanish ship, Spanish port: The coherence and strength of Italy has paid off. We are no longer the refugee camp of Europe," he said in a statement.

The stand-off has fuelled Salvini's campaign against migrant boats from Africa, and comes as he is trying to force Italy into snap elections.

Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced his resignation on Tuesday, accusing Salvini of sinking the ruling coalition for personal and political gain.

While welcoming Spain's latest move, Salvini's political rival Danilo Toninelli said he hoped Madrid would now commit to stop Open Arms' activity in the future.

Toninelli, who controls the Coast Guard but not port access, had earlier offered to take the migrants on a Coast Guard vessel to Spain under the condition that Madrid de-register the Open Arms ship by removing its Spanish flag.