An ocean rescue charity is taking a lone survivor and the bodies of two dead migrants to Spain, after clashing with Italy over what should be done with them.
Italy’s interior minister, who accused charity groups of lying about circumstances in which they find migrants at sea, questioned the organisation’s version of events.
Proactiva Open Arms said it recovered the bodies of a woman and a young boy along with a surviving woman in a wrecked boat in the central Mediterranean.
It accused the Libyan coast guard of abandoning them and criticised Italy for shutting its ports to rescued migrants.
Proactiva subsequently said Italy agreed to take the survivor, but not the bodies. The Spanish charity then asked Spain to let it dock there, even though this entailed a longer sea voyage.
Italy denied any suggestion it had blocked the boat, saying it offered the Proactiva ship berthing at one of two ports to disembark the living and the dead.
It refused access to Lampedusa island because it did not have cold storage facilities for bodies.
“Despite the willingness of our Sicilian ports to take them in, the NGO ship is going to Spain. Do they have something to hide???” Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini wrote on Twitter.
Libya’s coast guard denied abandoning anyone at sea on Tuesday, but did not explain how the three were left in the wrecked boat.
Salvini, who leads the right-wing League party, dismissed Proactiva’s version of events as “squalid propaganda,” saying it found neither corpses nor survivors aboard the remains of the boat.
“As far as I know the Libyan coastguard works to save lives and not to drown people,” he told reporters in Rome.
A journalist working for German RTL television witnessed the rescue operation and praised the professionalism of the Libyan coast guards. “The team did everything they could to save everyone. The men were compassionate,” said Nadja Kriewald in a statement.
She added the group of “more than 100” migrants were at sea for three days without food and water and were close to death.
Italian leftist parliamentarian, Erasmo Palazzotto, on board another Spanish charity boat in the same stretch waters, said Kriewald was talking about a separate rescue operation which she witnessed some 80 miles away.
“While one Libyan boat shot the perfect rescue operation with German TV, another left two women and a child in the middle of the sea. They were two different operations,” Palazzotto wrote on Twitter.
Salvini said Palazzotto had a political agenda and was unreliable.
The Spanish government said Proactiva’s Open Arms ship, currently around 75 nautical miles from the coast of Sicily, could dock at Palma de Mallorca. It is expected to reach there on July 21.
Salvini refused port to charity ships and is pushing for Libya’s coast guard to handle rescues and take migrants back to Libya, where humanitarian groups say they risk torture.
Underscoring its determination to halt migrant flows into Italy, the Italian foreign ministry said it would formally ask a European Union naval mission operating in the Mediterranean to automatically stop bringing anyone rescued at sea to Italian ports.
Under its terms of operation, the EU’s anti-trafficking mission, Sophia, transfers migrants it saves at sea to Italy. In a statement the foreign ministry instructed its representative in Brussels to push for a change to the rules.