Italy appeared to relent after at first refusing to accept 226 migrants on board a German charity rescue ship, saying later on Thursday it would take them in but would impound the vessel.
Anti-immigrant interior minister Matteo Salvini initially said the Dutch-flagged ship Lifeline should take people it plucked from the Mediterranean to the Netherlands and not Italy.
Transport minister Danilo Toninelli, who oversees the coastguard, later said it was unsafe for the 32m vessel to travel such a great distance with so many people.
“We will assume the humanitarian generosity and responsibility to save these people and take them on to Italian coastguard ships,” Toninelli said in a video posted on Facebook.
Earlier this month Salvini pledged to no longer let charity ships bring rescued migrants in Italy, leaving the Gibraltar-flagged Aquarius at sea for days with more than 600 migrants until Spain offered safe haven.
The Dutch government denied responsibility for the vessel, something Toninelli said Italy would investigate. The Italian coastguard would escort Lifeline “to an Italian port to conduct the probe” and impound the ship, he said.
Also on Thursday, the German charity Sea Eye which operates another Dutch-flagged ship, the Seefuchs, said it was ending its sea rescue mission after the Dutch government told them it was no longer responsible for the vessel.
The crew of the ship operated by Mission Lifeline, a Dresden-based charity spotted migrants in two over-crowded rubber boats in international waters on Thursday.
They were told by Italy Libya’s coastguard was coming, but decided to rescue the migrants because they would not have been safe if taken back to Libya, a spokesman said.
“You have intentionally not listened to Italian or Libyan authorities. Good. Then take this load of human beings to the Netherlands,” Salvini, leader of the anti-immigrant League party, said in a Facebook video.
International maritime guidelines say people rescued at sea should be taken to the nearest “place of safety”.
The United Nations and other humanitarian agencies do not deem Libya “a place of safety” because migrants there are subject to indefinite detention, physical abuse, forced labour and extortion.
Lifeline spokesman Axel Steier said the migrants on its boat included 14 women and four small children. “We didn’t want to wait for the Libyan coastguard because people were in danger,” Steier told Reuters.
Waiting for the Libyans would have constituted allowing “an illegal pushback” of refugees to a country where they are not safe, he added.
Italy’s new populist government thrust migration to the top of the European Union agenda. Italy has seen more than 640,000 migrants land on its shores since 2014 and is currently sheltering 170,000.
An emergency “mini-summit” has been called for Brussels on Sunday to discuss immigration ahead of a full, 28-state EU summit on June 28-29.
Last weekend, Toninelli called on the Netherlands to recall the Lifeline and Seefuchs.
“They provide incentive and encouragement for the departure of the death boats,” Toninelli said.