932 migrants land in Sicily as France-Italy standoff continues
Tension over handling of migrant ships rising ahead of Friday meeting
Italy's coast guard says its ship Diciotti brought 932 migrants to shore in Catania, Sicily, as a diplomatic standoff continues over Italy's refusal to let another rescue ship dock.
Thirteen of the passengers who disembarked in Catania are pregnant and 208 are minors. The passengers hail from Eritrea, Sudan, Mali, Ivory Coast and Guinea. The Diciotti was also carrying the bodies of a woman and teenage boy who died during their voyage.
During the voyage to Sicily, four pregnant women and a man suffering from fever were evacuated urgently and taken to hospitals.
The co-founder of the SOS Mediterranee charity said three ships carrying 629 migrants were expected to arrive around Saturday night at the Spanish port of Valencia, depending on weather conditions.
Sophie Beau said Wednesday in a news conference in Marseille, France, "It's a relief for everyone, our teams and of course above all for the survivors to know that they are finally allowed to head to a safe port in Europe."
Beau said while the rescue ship the association operates, the Aquarius, is travelling the 1,500 kilometres to Spain, new victims "are dying under our eyes."
She called on European countries to set up a fleet to save human lives in the Mediterranean Sea. Spain offered to welcome migrants aboard the Aquarius after Italy and Malta refused to take them in.
The United Nations' refugee agency chief called the bitter dispute "profoundly shameful" for the European Union.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Filippo Grandi said the EU can expect more such incidents in coming weeks as long as it remains divided on its policies toward migrants and refugees.
Grandi said closing ports wrongly threatens "rescue at sea" — a requirement under international law — but said Italy's reasoning was "something that we need to listen to."
Tensions ahead of Friday meeting
Italy's Foreign Ministry said French criticism of its handling of the Aquarius is "unacceptable," and is compromising their diplomatic relations.
The ministry issued a statement after Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi summoned the French ambassador to complain on Wednesday. The French charge d'affairs, Claire Anne Raulin, represented France as the ambassador was out of Rome.
In the statement, Italy said France could have made its views privately, and considered the public complaints by President Emmanuel Macron "unacceptable" and "unjustified." Macron had said Italy had been cynical and irresponsible for having denied entry to the Aquarius.
The ministry said: "Such declarations are compromising relations between Italy and France." It added that Italy was waiting for French to take action to "heal the situation that has been created."
UPDATE: Transfer to Italian coastguard and navy vessels now complete. 51 women, 45 men and 10 children left onboard <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Aquarius?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Aquarius</a>. While this brings an end to the ordeal of 629 rescued people rescued at sea, it should not set a precedent for future disembarkations in <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Mediterranean?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Mediterranean</a>. <a href="https://t.co/dWYmvvQHTq">pic.twitter.com/dWYmvvQHTq</a>—@MSF_Sea
France's Foreign Ministry spokesperson said France is fully aware of the burden weighing on Italy amid the migrant crisis, and of the efforts made by the country.
Agnes von der Muhll said "none of the comments by French authorities have questioned this, nor the need for a close coordination between Europeans", in a written statement Wednesday.
Macron is to meet with new Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte on Friday in Paris. Migrant-related issues will be at the heart of Friday's discussions and France hopes to maintain a "close dialogue" with its neighbour, according to the statement.
However, Italy's finance minister cancelled a planned meeting in Paris with his French counterpart on Wednesday amid the ongoing standoff between the two countries.
The office of Finance Minister Giovanni Tria confirmed Wednesday's meeting with Bruno Le Maire had been scrapped. Le Maire's office confirmed the cancellation. No reason was given by either office.
'Axis of the willing' proposed
The leader of Austria and Germany's conservative interior minister said their countries will co-operate with Italy to tackle the problem of illegal migration.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said an "axis of the willing" between Rome, Vienna and Berlin makes sense because the countries form one of the main travel routes into Europe for migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean.
Kurz told reporters in Berlin that a growing number of European governments agree on the need to curb uncontrolled migration and crack down on people trafficking.
Horst Seehofer, Germany's interior minister, said he spoke Tuesday to his Italian counterpart, adding that the three countries would press ahead on the issue.
Seehofer has taken a tough line on immigration that has put him at odds with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.