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Wednesday September 18th, 2019 1:50PM

Spanish aid boat blocked by Italy rescues 39 more migrants

By The Associated Press
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LAMPEDUSA, Italy (AP) — A private rescue ship that has remained at sea with 121 migrants after being denied permission to enter ports in two European countries rescued 39 more people Saturday, a Spanish aid group said, further complicating conditions on and off board.

The Open Arms made its latest rescue in international waters in the central Mediterranean Sea, where it has idled for nine days after picking up two other groups attempting to make the perilous crossing.

Italy and Malta both refused to allow the aid group's ship into their ports after the Aug. 2 missions. Malta offered to let the ship disembark the 39 new passengers Saturday, but continued to reject the original 121, aid group founder Oscar Camps said.

"We cannot evacuate 39 people and tell the rest that they have to stay," Camps said.

Malta's proposal to take some of the rescued migrants while leaving the rest on the ship increased the tension on the ship, he said.

"So we told the Maltese authorities that if they cannot evacuate all of them, we will continue to wait for the definitive evacuation due to serious problems of security and to keep order on the boat," Camps said.

The Maltese government said it was willing to take the 39 migrants because their boat was in the country's designated search-and-rescue area and Malta had launched its own operation before the Open Arms reached it.

But the government said in a statement that the other 121 migrants had been picked up "in an area where Malta is neither responsible nor the competent coordinating authority."

"Malta can only shoulder its own responsibility since other solutions are not forthcoming," the statement continued.

A new Italian law permits fines of up 1 million euros ($1.1 million) against the owners of rescue ships operated by nonprofit groups that enter Italy's waters without permission.

The law is Interior Minister Matteo Salvini's most recent action to stop aid groups' rescue ships, which he alleges encourage people smuggling from North Africa and burden Italy with asylum-seekers.

Salvini said he has signed orders specifically banning the Open Arms and the Norwegian-flagged migrant rescue ship Ocean Viking from Italian territory. 

"Italy is not a refugee camp for Europe. Go either to Spain or Norway," he told RAI state television. 

The Ocean Viking, run by the groups Doctors Without Borders and SOS Méditerranée, rescued 85 migrants in the central Mediterranean on Friday and another 80 on Saturday, bringing the number on board to 165 people.

The Open Arms ship currently is in international waters near the Italian island of Lampedusa, but the crew is staying out of Italy's territorial waters despite the deteriorating conditions on board.

However, founder Camps sounded a defiant note at a Saturday news conference on Lampedusa, saying that under maritime law humanitarian needs trump all else.

"We humanitarian organizations that are working at sea will resist, and no decree, no fine, no politician will stop us from protecting human life," Camps said.

Actor Richard Gere, who rented a boat to take food and water to the Open Arms on Friday, also called for politics to be set aside when lives are in danger.

"These are extraordinary people, they are so strong, they have been such through such horrors," Gere said about his visit with the rescued passengers. "Their passage from their home counties to Libya, what they had to endure, the women above all. ... The women had been all raped, multiple times. The men tortured in prison, not just once but multiple times.

"What most people refer to as migrants, I refer to as refugees that are running from a fire."

While Gere said he was hesitant to talk about Italian affairs, he drew a comparison between Salvini and U.S. President Donald Trump's moves to stop immigrants crossing the border from Mexico.

"Demonizing people has to stop everywhere on the planet," Gere said.

The International Organization for Migration says 840 people have died this year crossing the Mediterranean. Of those, 576 were on the perilous central route from Libya. That figure is down by half from a year earlier.

___

Wilson reported from Barcelona, Spain. Colleen Barry in Rome contributed.

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