MILAN (AP) — More than 80 people were evacuated from an immigrant rescue ship on Tuesday, capping a drama that saw 15 passengers jump into the sea to escape deteriorating conditions aboard and spurred Spain to dispatch a naval ship to end a weeks-long humanitarian crisis with Italy.
Sicilian prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio ordered the seizure of the ship off Italy’s southernmost island of Lampedusa — and the immediate evacuation of its passengers — after he boarded the vessel and met with port authorities in an investigation of possible kidnapping charges resulting from the refusal of hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini to allow the immigrants to get off the Spanish humanitarian ship the Open Arms, the news agency ANSA reported.
“Finally, the nightmare ends and 83 people on board will receive immediate assistance on land,” the Open Arms organization said on Twitter. Hours later, refugees and crew members celebrated as the rescue ship docked in Lampedusa. The migrants then walked one-by-one down a gangplank to land.
The rescued passengers have been on the Spanish-flagged charity ship since they were plucked from the Mediterranean 19 days ago.
Even after six countries stepped forward to take the refugees and Italy’s governing coalition imploded partly because of the crisis, Salvini refused to open Italian ports.
The minister staved off previous investigations resulting from other standoffs and tweeted that he wasn’t worried about the prospect of criminal charges.
“I am not afraid, I am proud to defend the borders and security of my country,” Salvini said.
Earlier Tuesday, Spain’s caretaker Socialist government sent a navy ship to escort the Open Arms to a Spanish port after more than a dozen people jumped into the sea within view of Lampedusa, desperate to flee overcrowded and deteriorating conditions on the vessel after their rescue off Libya. Those who jumped overboard were quickly picked up by Italian ships.
Until the action by the Italian prosecutor, the Spanish move was the first concrete signal promising an end the humanitarian crisis involving the Open Arms.
“After analyzing all the options, this is the most adequate and the one that would allow resolving within this week the humanitarian emergency on board the Open Arms,” the Spanish government said in a statement.
The people on the Open Arms were tantalizingly close to Lampedusa but forbidden by Salvini to disembark. The captain had told Italian authorities the crew of 17 was no longer able to maintain control, and described the situation as “desperate.”
After one Syrian national jumped and was rescued and brought to shore on Lampedusa, two more groups followed his lead. They too were ferried to land and spared a return to the ship.
Video showed people in life vests floating in the sea, some in groups and some individually, with a coast guard vessel nearby and rubber dinghies maneuvering to pluck them to safety.
Dozens of others have been evacuated in recent days for medical reasons or because they are minors. Officials said tensions on board were running high, with fights breaking out.
The temporary confiscation of the rescue ship by the prosecutor “is a cost that Open Arms assumes to secure that the people on board can be assisted,” said the Spanish NGO’s founder, Oscar Camps, on Twitter.
“We consider indispensable prioritizing their health and security in this humanitarian emergency,” he wrote.
Spain said it would take three days for its navy ship, the Audaz, to reach Lampedusa from the Spanish port of Rota, and it was not immediately clear how long it would take to escort the smaller Open Arms vessel to the Spanish island of Mallorca, where it is to dock in Palma de Mallorca.
Emilio Damiá Marqués, commander of the Audaz, told Spanish public broadcaster TVE from Rota that his ship, carrying 62 people including a doctor, was expected to arrive at the Italian island by Friday afternoon.
Italian Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli welcomed Spain’s move to help resolve the crisis involving the Open Arms, operated by a nongovernmental humanitarian agency.
“Good news, finally the by-now unsustainable situation on board the NGO ship could have a solution that protects the people on board for 19 days by now, and not leave Italy alone,” he said.
The Open Arms sailed to within a few hundred meters of Lampedusa last week after Salvini’s ban on private rescue boats entering Italy’s waters was overturned by a court. Salvini has appealed and warned that his ban on docking still held.
Meanwhile, the Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking, which is operated by two French humanitarian groups and has 356 rescued people aboard, has been sailing between Malta and the Italian island of Linosa as it waits for a port of safety to be assigned.
Italy’s standoff over the Open Arms has further raised tensions in the country’s failing ruling coalition, as Cabinet members from the 5-Star Movement, including the defense and transport ministers, increasingly question Salvini’s treatment of refuge-seekers. Salvini, leader of the right-wing League party, has his eyes set on the prime minister’s office.
Toninelli said other European countries were turning their backs on Italy “and there is one person responsible: Matteo Salvini, who has weakened the government and as a consequence our position in Europe.”