MILAN (Reuters) – Italian police on Monday seized a German migrant rescue ship that had been stranded at sea for a week with more than 100 migrants aboard, and will disembark the migrants soon, a police spokesman said.
The ship’s captain had earlier set course for the port of Pozzallo, on the island of Sicily, sparking a new standoff between rescuers and Italy’s interior minister just as he looks set to lose his job.
Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League, signed a decree last week banning the Eleonore from entering Italian waters as part of his closed-door policy on migrants arriving by boat from north Africa.
“The ship was seized and migrants will be disembarked around midday (1000 GMT),” said a spokesman for Italy’s financial police in Rome, which is dealing with the case.
The Eleonore’s captain, Claus-Peter Reisch, tweeted on Monday that Italian authorities were on board.
He had earlier said he had decided to enter Italian waters and head for shelter because of storms.
“After eight days of waiting for a safe harbor, after countless attempts to convince states to care for 104 people, tonight the weather has decided,” he tweeted.
“I need to declare Eleonore a case of emergency due to the life-threatening situation on board.”
The ship is operated by the German charity Mission Lifeline.
A succession of charity vessels have struggled over the past year to bring migrants rescued at sea to Italian shores as Salvini has taken a tough line.
He is maintaining that line even though his party is on the verge of losing power after its coalition with the anti-establishment 5-Star party broke down. 5-Star is now in talks to form a new government with the center-left opposition Democratic Party (PD), which is critical of Salvini’s stance.
“Laws and borders will be respected. If someone thinks he can ignore them without consequences, he is making a big mistake … I am doing and will do everything to defend Italy,” Salvini said in a statement on the Eleonore’s attempt to dock.
Salvini has been using the issue of immigration to try to drive a wedge between 5-Star and the PD, and has called for a snap election.
(Reporting by Francesca Landini in Milan and Tassilo Hummel in Berlin; Editing by Kevin Liffey)