Italy says 6 other countries will take migrants who've been at sea for 2 weeks
Letter from PM to deputy Salvini reflects heated relations within Italy's coalition government
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Thursday that six EU countries had agreed to take in 150 migrants from a rescue ship that Italy had blocked from docking, resolving the latest standoff over immigration to Europe across the Mediterranean.
The migrants have been stranded on the Spanish charity ship Open Arms since it picked them up off Libya two weeks ago, and Rome's interior minister, Matteo Salvini, refused to allow them to disembark.
The migrants will be shared among France, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg, Conte said in an open letter to Salvini.
"I understand your faithful and obsessive concentration on addressing the issue of immigration by reducing it to the formula of 'closed ports'," said Conte. "You are a political leader and you are legitimately intent on constantly increasing your support," he wrote.
The Open Arms, operated by a Spanish charity of the same name, was in Italian territorial waters on Thursday, a day after a Rome administrative court gave it leave to enter them, countermanding Salvini's ban.
Thursday night, it tweeted that authorities have allowed nine people to disembark from the boat on an Italian island, but the 138 other migrants aren't being allowed to get off.
It said that five migrants received the OK to disembark for "psychological" reasons and four of their family members were allowed off, too, at the dock on Lampedusa island.
Before Conte's announcement, Spain said it was working with other EU states and the European Commission to find a "common ... and orderly solution," and was willing to "participate in a balanced distribution of migrants on board the ship."
French and German officials confirmed talks were underway to resolve this latest in a series of flashpoints over immigration involving Italy, and one that has fuelled infighting in a coalition government in Rome that is close to collapse.
Portugal confirmed its interest. A joint statement from its interior and foreign affairs ministries on Thursday said the government's move to receive the potential asylum-seekers reflected "a common desire to provide European solutions to the issue of migration."
Since the beginning of 2018, Portugal has received 132 people rescued by several boats in the Mediterranean, the statement added.
A matter of life and death, migrant says
Salvini, who heads the far-right League party that forms part of the coalition, issued an emergency order to prevent Open Arms arriving at the Italian island of Lampedusa. But the defence minister, who is from the League's partner party Five-Star, refused to countersign it.
Openly challenging the League leader, who has so far dictated Italy's immigration policy, Elisabetta Trenta said defying the court was illegal and that "politics must not lose its humanity."
The League and the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement were already in open conflict after Salvini said last week the alliance had become unworkable and called for elections.
The League has tabled a motion of no-confidence in the government, and Conte, a former academic who is not from either ruling party, vented his anger in his open letter to Salvini.
He accused Salvini of "disloyal collaboration" by misrepresenting Conte's own position, and of exploiting the issue of immigration for electoral gain rather than seeking necessary solutions with Italy's partners.
Hollywood star Richard Gere visited the Open Arms last week and urged the Italian government to stop "demonizing people" and allow the boat to disembark.
The charity's spokesperson said the ship was anchored eight kilometres off Lampedusa.
Spanish public broadcaster TVE, who are present on the Open Arms, interviewed a migrant, who said they would only really rejoice once they will have reached the shore. "We need to touch ground, life is over there, here it's death," said the woman, whom TVE did not name.
"We're waiting," the Open Arms spokesperson said.
With files from The Associated Press