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Ocean Viking: Meloni slams 'aggressive' France as migrant rescue ship row escalates

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By Euronews  with AFP
The 'Ocean Viking' charity ship carrying more than 200 migrants enters military port of Toulon
The 'Ocean Viking' charity ship carrying more than 200 migrants enters military port of Toulon   -   Copyright  AFP   -  

A charity-run ship carrying around 230 migrants rescued at sea docked at a French port on Friday after being turned away by Italy, as a war of words over their fate between the two European Union neighbours intensified.

France warned Italy of "severe consequences" before the Ocean Viking arrived at the southern port of Toulon. The charity ship was denied entry by Rome after it rescued the migrants in the Mediterranean.

That brought an angry response from Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, head of Italy's most right-wing government in decades, who now appears ready to push the dispute to the top of the European agenda.

"I was struck by the aggressive reaction from the French government which from my point of view is incomprehensible and unjustified," Meloni told a news conference, adding that Italy could not be the only destination for migrants from Africa.

The Ocean Viking ship had initially sought access to Italy's coast, which is closest to where the migrants were picked up, saying health and sanitary conditions onboard were rapidly worsening.

Italy refused, saying other nations must shoulder more of the burden that comes with accepting thousands of migrants trying to reach Europe from North Africa every year.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said France acted out of a "duty of humanity", criticising Italy's stance as "inhumane" and "incomprehensible", saying the Ocean Viking "is located without any doubt in Italy's search and rescue zone".

He criticised Italian authorities for "making the migrants wait at sea for 15 days".

The French authorities have pledged to decide the migrants' fate "very quickly", by assessing their asylum applications within "48 hours". 

On Thursday, Darmanin said nine European nations had committed to hosting two-thirds of the migrants -- who reportedly include 57 children -- with the remaining third staying in France.

Germany will take "more than 80", while Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Malta, Portugal, Luxembourg and Ireland will also contribute in the name of "European solidarity", he added.

After dozens of requests to dock were refused, the charity operating the ship, SOS Mediterranee, turned to France for help.

France first said it would evacuate three migrants needing urgent medical care, with a helicopter taking them and a caregiver to a hospital in Corsica.

Later on Thursday, the Italian government also used the same word -- "incomprehensible" -- to describe France's response to allowing a migrant ship to disembark in a French port.

Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said the request had been for "234 migrants when Italy has taken in 90,000 just this year".

France has suspended a plan to take 3,500 refugees currently in Italy, part of a European burden-sharing accord, and urged Germany and other EU nations to do the same.

"There will be extremely severe consequences for bilateral relations and European relations," Darmanin warned, adding that French police would also reinforce controls at Italian border crossings.

The flare-up of tensions echoes European migrant disputes four years ago when French President Emmanuel Macron in particular clashed with Italy's populist interior minister Matteo Salvini.

Salvini, who recently returned to government as Meloni's deputy, responded to France's decision to halt the migrant-sharing deal with the sarcastic tweet: "European solidarity."

France had insisted that under international maritime law, Rome had to take in the Ocean Viking and the 234 distressed migrants it rescued, not least after it granted access this week to three other rescue ships carrying around 700 people.

But Italy's Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said this week that he was sending a signal to EU nations that they must play an even bigger part.

Rome wants "an agreement to establish, on the basis of population, how migrants with a right to asylum are relocated to various countries", Tajani said ahead of a meeting of EU ministers next week.

In June, around a dozen EU countries, including France, agreed to take in migrants who arrive in Italy and other main entry points.

So far this year, 164 asylum seekers have been moved from Italy to other nations in the bloc that have volunteered to accept them.

But this is a tiny fraction of the 88,000 others who have reached its shores so far this year, some 14 percent of this figure was rescued by NGO vessels, according to the Italian authorities.

Video editor • Alessio Dellanna

Additional sources • Reuters