France, Italy wrangle over migrant rescue ship

Tensions mounted between France and Italy on Wednesday over the fate of an NGO ship carrying 234 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean, with Paris calling the refusal by Italian authorities to let the vessel dock "unacceptable."

It was the latest European standoff in recent years over where to disembark migrants picked up after trying to reach Europe from North Africa, with Italy increasingly frustrated at taking in the bulk of those rescued.

The row centres on the Ocean Viking, a charity ship which has sailed away from Sicilian waters toward France after unsuccessfully waiting for permission to dock in Italy since late October.

Run by the European charity SOS Mediterranee under a Norwegian flag, the ship has appealed to France to accept it and it was expected to approach Corsica by Thursday.

"It's a total blockage on the part of the Italians," SOS Med director Sophie Beau told AFP, saying it had lodged 43 official requests with no response.

The ship is sailing north along the Sicilian coast toward Sardinia and potentially France, where the charity has also asked for port access.

As of Wednesday morning it "still had no official response" from French authorities, Beau said.

Italy's Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani nonetheless claimed in an interview that France had offered Marseille as a port of safety, as did the office of the country's new far-right premier Giorgia Meloni late Tuesday.

But Paris has not confirmed this and on Wednesday, government spokesman Olivier Veran said the Ocean Viking remained in waters under Italian responsibility.

He said "the current attitude of the Italian government, notably its declarations and refusal to accept the ship," were "unacceptable."

The Ocean Viking is the last of four NGO ships that have recovered over 1,000 migrants stranded in rickety vessels at sea over the past few weeks, the latest of tens of thousands who have set off for Europe in recent years.

- Hardball -

The standoff echoes disputes four years ago between Italy and other EU nations, when President Emmanuel Macron in particular clashed with Italy's populist, anti-immigrant interior minister Matteo Salvini.

Analysts say the arrival of Meloni at the head of Italy's most right-wing government in decades could again lead to strained ties that complicate decision-making on a range of subjects at the EU level.

"We're seeing diplomatic arm-wrestling between France and Italy that could open a breach for similar conflicts, because Italy is clearly challenging a European accord (on migrants) that was in its favour," said Matthieu Tardis of the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI).

Under international law, ships in distress or carrying rescued passengers must be allow entry in the nearest port of call -- which means Italy and often Malta are shouldering the burden of taking in those rescued after trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya.

In June, around a dozen EU countries, including France, agreed to take in migrants who arrive in Italy and other main entry points.

For Tajani, Rome's reluctance to offer its ports is a signal to European Union nations that they must play an even bigger part.

Rome wants "an agreement to establish, on the basis of population, how migrants with a right to asylum are relocated to various countries," Tajani said ahead of a meeting of EU ministers next week.

So far this year, 164 asylum seekers have been moved from Italy to other nations in the bloc that have volunteered to accept them.

But that is a tiny fraction of the more than 88,000 that have reached its shores so far this year, of which just 14 percent arrived after being rescued by NGO vessels, according to the Italian authorities.

In the meantime, Marseille's left-wing Mayor Benoit Payan told AFP on Wednesday that "It would be to France's honour" for his city to welcome the Ocean Viking.

Gilles Simeoni, regional council leader for the French island of Corsica, said Tuesday on Twitter that he was also ready to take in the migrants temporarily.

According to the UN's International Organization for Migration, 1,891 migrants have died or disappeared while trying to cross the Mediterranean so far this year.

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