Italy's president irks interior minister by allowing 67 migrants to disembark

President Sergio Mattarella has made a rare intervention in Italian politics to end a dispute within the ruling coalition over a migrant boat, angering right-wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

Matteo Salvini reacts with 'regret and amazement' to president's decision after ship's days of limbo

Italian Red Cross personnel play with children after they disembarked the Italian coast guard vessel Diciotti at the port of Catania, but the interior minister is less welcoming fo their presence. (Antonio Parrinello/Reuters)

President Sergio Mattarella has made a rare intervention in Italian politics to end a dispute within the ruling coalition over a migrant boat, angering right-wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

Mattarella contacted Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte late on Thursday to express his concern about the plight of 67 migrants rescued at sea and brought to a Sicilian port. Salvini had refused to allow them to disembark.

The ship had been brought to the port of Trapani with the approval of Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, but Salvini ordered that no one should leave the boat until alleged violent conduct by some of the migrants had been investigated.

Toninelli is from the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, while Salvini heads its coalition partner, the right-wing, anti-immigrant League.

After receiving Mattarella's phone call, Conte, an academic who is close to Five Star but not a member of either party, ordered the migrants be allowed off the ship. Salvini said he had learned of the president's move with "regret and amazement."

A wide shot shows the migrants disembarking the Italian coast guard vessel Diciotti to be processed in Catania. (Antonio Parrinello)

Relations have often been tense between Salvini and Mattarella, who has a largely ceremonial role and intervenes in politics only in exceptional circumstances.

Migrant threats alleged

After inconclusive elections in March, Mattarella rejected Salvini's request to be named prime minister and this week he refused to defend the League after a court ordered that its funds be sequestered over a corruption case.

Salvini tweeted on Friday that he would not let the case of the migrant boat lie, using capital letters to say someone "has to pay" if the migrants had been violent.

The migrants, predominantly men, were picked up off the Libyan coast by an Italian-flagged supply vessel on Monday, before being transferred onto a coastguard ship, the Diciotti.

Salvini has said a Sudanese and a Ghanaian among the migrants allegedly threatened to hijack the tug so it wouldn't return them to Libya, where migrants have been tortured in crowded detention centres. Prosecutors in Rome will investigate the alleged threats.

Hours before Mattarella stepped into the case, Salvini had vowed not to authorise them to disembark, saying: "If someone does it in my place, he will assume the judicial, moral and political responsibility for it."

Italian President Sergio Mattarella welcomes League party leader Matteo Salvini at the Quirinale palace in Rome in April. Salvini's views on migrant crossings were well known to voters in the recent election, but it remains to be seen if Salvini's hard-nosed style will wear out its welcome within the coalition. (Italian Presidential Press Office via Reuters)

The League and Five Star, who were pre-election rivals, formed a coalition on June 1, pledging to crackdown on migration even though arrivals from Libya, where people smugglers operate with impunity, are down more than 85 per cent this year.

Salvini has led a high-profile campaign to shut humanitarian rescue ships out of Italy's ports, a move supported by Five Star. But Salvini's tough immigration stance, which dominates the media agenda, has recently appeared to rankle his allies.

Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio said on Thursday it was impossible to prevent the Diciotti docking because it carried an Italian flag, and on Friday he backed Mattarella's decision to intervene, saying "we have to respect the president."

With files from The Associated Press