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Open Arms ship to be seized by Italian prosecutor, migrants to disembark

Guglielmo Mangiapane, Reuters | Spanish migrant rescue ship Open Arms lies anchored close to the Italian shore in Lampedusa, Italy, on August 17, 2019.

An Italian prosecutor ordered on Tuesday the seizure of the Open Arms migrant ship and the evacuation of the migrants on board, ending a prolonged stand-off between the Spanish charity and the government in Rome.

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Some 80 migrants are thought to be left on board Open Arms, a Spanish rescue ship, after Italy repeatedly refused to allow the boat to dock.

"After 19 days, we will land in Lampedusa today. The boat will be temporarily seized, but it is a cost that Open Arms assumes to ensure that people on board can be taken care of," tweeted founder of NGO Proactiva Open Arms, Oscar Camps.

After an inspection by judicial police and doctors, prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio ordered the migrants be disembarked on the small island of Lampedusa due to tensions onboard.

Fifteen migrants, some without lifejackets, jumped into the sea earlier on Tuesday in a bid to swim to Lampedusa.

They were "rescued and evacuated to Lampedusa," said a spokeswoman for Proactiva Open Arms that owns the ship, on which the long wait has led to fights and suicide threats as tempers fray.

The charity warned the situation was "out of control," with some of the migrants stuck for 19 days after being rescued at sea off the coast of Libya, many suffering post-traumatic stress.

The decision by Patronaggio came as a major political crisis played out in Italy, with the resignation of the prime minister Giuseppe Conte after far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini pulled his support from the ruling coalition.

Patronaggio intervened as part of a probe into alleged kidnapping and refusing to obey orders targeting Salvini.

Salvini hit back on Facebook about the decision to let the migrants off the boat, saying: "If anybody thinks they can scare me with the umpteenth complaint and wants a trial, they're mistaken."

Europe's refugee camp

There were initially 147 mainly African migrants on the ship but as the days passed, some were evacuated for medical care and all minors were allowed to disembark.

Over 80 are left on board.

Six European Union countries -- France, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg -- have offered to take them all in.

But Salvini still refused to allow migrant rescue vessels to dock as part of his hardline policies.

"Being firm is the only way to stop Italy from becoming Europe's refugee camp again," he tweeted.

A Spanish naval patrol boat, the Audaz, set off from Rota in southwestern Spain on Tuesday on a three-day trip to Lampedusa.

It would then escort the Open Arms vessel to Palma de Mallorca in Spain's Balearic Islands, the government said in a statement.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez tweeted: "With this measure Spain will this week solve the humanitarian emergency."

But the Spanish government was not able to immediately say whether the ship would now turn back following the Italian decision to let the migrants land.

Salvini 'a disgrace'

Spain had tried to break the standoff over the migrants at the weekend by offering up its southern port of Algeciras, which the NGO said could "not be achieved" due to the distance and tensions on board.

Madrid then suggested Mallorca in the Balearic Islands, nearer but still around 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) from Lampedusa.

The charity described the offer as "totally incomprehensible" and continued to demand the ship be allowed to dock in Lampedusa.

Spain's Defence Minister Margarita Robles slammed Italy -- and particularly Salvini -- for the situation.

"What Salvini is doing in relationship with the Open Arms is a disgrace to humanity as a whole," she said Monday.

Salvini "has shown he doesn't care about human lives", she added on Tuesday.

Shortly after he came to power in June 2018, Sanchez made international headlines by agreeing to allow 630 migrants stranded on another charity rescue ship, the Aquarius, to disembark in Spain. Both Italy and Malta had refused entry to the migrants.

His Socialist government then allowed the Open Arms to take migrants it had rescued on the Mediterranean to Spain, most recently in December 2018. But after that Spain had refused entry to migrant rescue boats.

(AFP)

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