Hundreds of migrants waiting aboard rescue ships after Italy denied them entry finally came ashore Tuesday, even as a diplomatic row broke out between Paris and Rome over another vessel seeking safe harbour.
Nearly 500 migrants have been in limbo after being rescued by three different charity ships last month during their perilous crossing from North Africa to Italy's shores.
But on Tuesday night, the Geo Barents and the Humanity 1 finally disembarked the nearly 250 migrants they carried after Italian health authorities gave them the green light at Sicily's eastern port of Catania.
"My life is back!" shouted one of the migrants, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which operates the Geo Barents.
Both the Geo Barents and Humanity 1, run by non-governmental group SOS Humanity, docked at the weekend in Catania, disembarking about 500 of the most vulnerable migrants.
But Italian authorities denied entry to approximately 250 others and ordered the ships to return to sea with them on board, a directive both groups rejected.
After appealing to Italy unsuccessfully since October 27 to dock, a third ship, the Ocean Viking, sailed away from Sicilian waters towards France with 234 migrants on board.
"Facing the silence of Italy and the exceptionality of the situation, the Ocean Viking has now escalated her request for a place of safety in France," said the group, run by European charity SOS Mediterranee under a Norwegian flag.
The vessel was expected to approach Corsica by Thursday, it said.
- Diplomacy test -
The handling of the ships is a first test for Italy's new far-right government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who has vowed to stop the tens of thousands of migrants who land on the country's shores every year.
But a diplomatic row erupted after Meloni thanked France for opening a port to the Ocean Viking -- in anticipation of any confirmation, or denial, by France.
"We express our heartfelt appreciation for France's decision to share responsibility for the migration emergency, which until now has remained on the shoulders of Italy and a few other Mediterranean states," Meloni said in a statement.
France's interior ministry declined comment, while SOS Mediterranee said they had received no confirmation from French authorities that they could dock.
A French government source told AFP the behaviour of Italy in the matter was "unacceptable, contrary to the law of the sea and to the spirit of European solidarity".
"We expect something else from a country that is today the first beneficiary of the European solidarity mechanism," the source said, referring to Italy's majority slice of post-Covid EU recovery funds.
Italian news agency AGI, without citing sources, said France had agreed to accept the Ocean Viking at Marseille. Meloni and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed the deal Monday night during the COP27 UN climate summit in Egypt, AGI reported.
- Mounting anxiety -
Earlier Tuesday, a fourth boat -- the Rise Above operated by Germany's Mission Lifeline -- successfully disembarked all its 89 migrants, mostly minors, at the port of Reggio Calabria at the toe of Italy.
Rights groups have called illegal an Italian decree that permitted the Geo Barents and Humanity 1 to dock only for the time it took to help emergency migrant cases.
SOS Mediterranee said the choice of which migrants to allow onto Italian soil was "selective and discriminatory".
Charity groups said migrants who have been waiting on the ships were suffering from acute psychological stress.
On Monday, migrants on the stern of the Geo Barents held up signs and chanted "Help us"!
Two Syrians jumped into the water and were pulled out, and then spent the night on the dock refusing food and water, MSF said.
Ships chartered by humanitarian organisations regularly pick up migrants from overcrowded boats in distress in the Mediterranean.
But their passengers account for only 14 percent of the more than 87,000 people who have landed in Italy so far this year, the interior ministry says.
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said Monday the government is acting "with humanity but firmly based on our principles".
Piantedosi said he was working at a national and European Union level to reduce the burden on Italy after years of complaints from Rome that the bloc was not doing enough.