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Aquarius migrant rescue ship heads for Marseille despite revoked registration

Boris Horvat, AFP | Crew members stand aboard the Aquarius rescue ship as it leaves Marseille on August 1.

The Aquarius migrant rescue ship is headed for the port of Marseille with 58 people on board and will seek authorisation to dock from the French government, the vessel's operators said Monday, after the ship's registration was revoked.

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"It's the only option we have," the director of SOS Méditerranée, Frédéric Penard, told reporters.

France's government has said it wants the Aquarius ship to dock at the nearest safe port.

The move followed a decision on Saturday by the Panama Maritime Authority to revoke the ship’s registration in a move the NGOs administering the boat said was a reaction to "blatant economic and political pressure from the Italian government".

The NGOS “are calling on French authorities to allow them to dock there once again”, explained FRANCE 24’s Catherine Norris-Trent. “Then they’re hoping to try and sort out some kind of registration for the ship so they can eventually set sail again.”

In a statement released over the weekend, SOS Méditerranée and Doctors without Borders (MSF) slammed the decision to revoke the ship's registration, noting that it "condemns hundreds of men, women and children who are desperate to reach safety to a watery grave, and deals a major blow to the life-saving humanitarian mission of the Aquarius, the only remaining non-governmental search and rescue vessel in the Central Mediterranean".

They urged European governments to "allow the Aquarius to continue its mission, by affirming to the Panamanian authorities that threats made by the Italian government are unfounded, or by immediately issuing a new flag under which the vessel can sail".

Panama said it was revoking its flag owing to "non-respect" of "international legal procedures" relating to migrant rescues in the Mediterranean.

Aquarius spent 19 days docked in the French port of Marseille after Gibraltar revoked its flag last month. It set sail again last week after first acquiring recognition from Panama.

But Panama then launched "an official revocation procedure" after Italian authorities complained that Aquarius's captain had "refused to return migrants and refugees back to their point of origin".

Last week, the Aquarius picked up 11 migrants off the coast of Libya but refused to take them back to the North African country and instead went in search of an alternative port.

The vessel has been jointly operated by the SOS Méditerranée and Doctors Without Borders charities since 2016.

Italian authorities said Friday it was "floating in the Mediterranean" and that it wasn't welcome to dock in Italy.

The Aquarius has been banned from Italian ports since June, when Interior Minister Matteo Salvini decided the country would take in no more migrants.

He tweeted Thursday the boat could go wherever it wanted – "but not to Italy".

'Abusive and vicious tactics'

In a statement, the two NGOs said the Aquarius "meets all maritime standards and is in full compliance with rigorous technical specifications as required under the Panama flag".

It denounced Rome's action as "further proof of the extent to which the Italian government is willing to go to, knowing that the only consequence is that people will continue to die at sea and that no witnesses will be present to count the dead".

Karline Kleijer, MSF's head of emergencies, said EU leaders "appear to have no qualms implementing increasingly abusive and vicious tactics that serve their own political interests at the expense of human lives".

"This tragedy has to end," Kleijer added.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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