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Italy demands apology from France in migrant boat row

AFP file photo | Giuseppe Conte, Italy's new prime minister, says his country won't accept "hypocritical lessons" from its EU partners.

Italy summoned the French ambassador on Friday and challenged Paris to take in more migrants after the French presidency criticised its "cynical" decision to turn away an NGO-run rescue ship with hundreds of migrants on board.


In an address to the Italian Senate, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini demanded an apology after French President Emmanuel Macron accused Italy of cynical and irresponsible behaviour by refusing entry to the Aquarius rescue ship.

Salvini later told reporters a planned meeting between Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Macron on Friday should be cancelled if there is no "official apology" from Paris.

The interior minister, who heads the hard-right League party, also challenged France to take in the migrants it promised to under an EU scheme that was never implemented.

'It's certainly turning into a very bitter diplomatic row'

Some 629 migrants, including 11 children and seven pregnant women, have been afloat in the central Mediterranean aboard the Aquarius ship since Sunday, when both Italy and Malta refused to let them dock.

The boat has now embarked on a four-day journey to Spain, escorted by two Italian navy vessels, after the Spanish government offered to take in the migrants who were picked up off the Libyan coast over the weekend.

On Tuesday, the French presidency denounced Rome's decision to block the Aquarius, saying that under international law Italy should have taken the migrants in.

Macron's office said France doesn’t want the Italian move to "start a precedent" under which some European countries breach international laws and rely on other EU member states to take in migrants.

"There is a degree of cynicism and irresponsibility in the Italian government's behaviour with regard to this dramatic humanitarian situation," government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux quoted Macron as telling his cabinet.

Gabriel Attal, a spokesman for Macron's party, went further, telling Public Senat TV: "The Italian position makes me vomit."


The criticism prompted an angry response from Italy's new government, a coalition of Eurosceptic and anti-establishment parties.

"I cannot accept hypocritical lessons from countries that have always preferred to turn their backs when it comes to immigration," Prime Minister Conte said in a statement.

"No one should dare brand Italy or its government as inhumane or xenophobic," added his transport minister, Danilo Toninelli.

>> Read more: Mission Aquarius, 10 days rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean

Italy has taken in more than 640,000 mainly African migrants over the past five years. Other EU states have largely ignored pleas by Rome to take in some of the newcomers and share the cost of their care, heightening anti-European and anti-migrant sentiment in Italy.

Josephine McKenna reports from Rome

Salvini has said his decision not to accept the Aquarius is aimed at forcing other European states to help bear the strain.

In his speech to the Senate on Wednesday, Salvini said France had committed to accepting close to 10,000 migrants under a 2015 EU redistribution scheme to relieve frontline countries of the pressure of asylum-seekers.

But in three years, France has accepted only 640 people, Salvini said, adding: "So I ask President Macron to pass from words to action and tomorrow morning welcome the 9,816 France promised to welcome as a sign of concrete generosity and not just words."

Salvini's League scored its best-ever result in March national elections, partly on pledges to deport hundreds of thousands of migrants and halt the flow of newcomers, and has formed a coalition with the anti-system Five-Star Movement.

The new Italian government has received backing from Hungary's right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is a friend of Salvini and is known for his fiercely anti-immigrant rhetoric.

"It was so depressing to hear for years that it is impossible to protect maritime borders," Orban told reporters in Budapest. "Willpower has returned to Italy."


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