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Italian minister tells foreign rescue ships to stop migrant pick-ups

© AFP | Charities have been chartering boats to rescue migrants who face very difficult conditions in Libya as they attempt to reach Europe 

ROME (AFP) - 

Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on Sunday told foreign charities to back off and let Libya take care of rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

"Let the Libyan authorities do their work of rescue, recovery and return (of migrants) to their country, as they have been doing for some time, without the ships of the voracious NGOs disturbing them or causing trouble," he said.

"Italian ports are and will be closed to those who aid human traffickers," he said.

Salvini's comments came as the Spanish group Proactiva Open Arms said they had received "seven or eight" messages alerting them to boats in distress in the Mediterranean on Sunday.

"Combining all the notifications, it would add up to 1,000 people" near the coast of Libya, Laura Lanuza, a spokeswoman for the group told AFP.

But she said the Italian coastguard had told the group they "weren't needed" and "the operation was being handled by the Libyan coastguard".

"If the Libyan coastguard coordinates this effort, all these people will be sent back to Libya," she said.

Contacted by AFP, the Libyan coastguard said they had rescued 97 migrants on Sunday and "other operations are under way", but did not give further details.

In recent weeks, Italy's new populist government has cracked down on foreign rescue ships operating in the Mediterranean.

Salvini has repeatedly accused the charities of being complicit with human smugglers operating in Libya.

"These boats can forget about reaching Italy, I want to stop the business of trafficking and mafia," Salvini, who has promised to curb the number of migrants arriving in Italy, said Saturday.

The Italian coastguard also sent a message to rescue boats operating in the Mediterranean Friday informing them it would no longer be coordinating rescue operations in the Libya search and rescue area.

"From now on, under the Solas Convention (Safety of life at Sea), captains who are at sea in the area near Libya will have to turn to the Tripoli Centre and the Libyan Coast Guard for help," the message, reported in the Italian media, said.

The groups, which have been chartering boats to rescue migrants, point to the very difficult conditions for migrants in Libya as they attempt to reach Europe.

Previously, Rome often played an important role coordinating migrant rescue missions in the Mediterranean.

But Salvini wants to drastically reduce Italy's involvement.

- Safe harbour -

Earlier this month Salvini triggered an EU-wide row when he barred the Aquarius rescue ship, chartered by French charity SOS Mediterranee, carrying around 630 migrants, from docking in Italy. Nearby Malta also turned the boat away and the ship was later accepted by Spain.

Two other ships carrying hundreds of migrants -- the German NGO ship Lifeline and Danish container ship Alexander Maersk -- are currently stranded in the Mediterranean awaiting instructions on where they will be allowed to dock.

Both Italy and Malta have refused to take them in.

Reacting to the situation Sunday, mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, called on the Spanish government to help.

"Right now more than 1,000 people adrift in 7 boats and Italy intends to leave them in the hands of Libya, where people are tortured, raped and enslaved," she said on Twitter.

She urged her own country to "help save lives" and said the migrants could would be welcomed in her city.

"Barcelona is offered as a safe harbour," she added.

Salvini's refusal to welcome migrant rescue ships has again thrust the issue of immigration to the forefront of the EU agenda.

On Sunday, EU leaders met at an emergency mini-summit to try to mend rifts between members over the issue.

The meeting was called last week to clear the air before a scheduled full summit on Thursday and Friday.

© 2018 AFP