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New Italy government lets rescued migrants disembark

Charles ONIANS
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The offering of a safe port to the Ocean Viking is a reversal of the hardline stance taken by Italy's ex-interior minister Matteo Salvini last year

The offering of a safe port to the Ocean Viking is a reversal of the hardline stance taken by Italy's ex-interior minister Matteo Salvini last year (AFP Photo/Anne CHAON)

Rome (AFP) - Italy on Saturday allowed rescue ship Ocean Viking to disembark 82 migrants on Lampedusa, in a reversal of the hardline policy under the country's ex-interior minister Matteo Salvini.

Far-right leader Salvini was forced out of office last month after bringing the government down, and the new coalition has been trying to forge its own migrant stance.

It is the first time in 14 months that Italy has given a migrant rescue ship a safe port, although it took Rome six days and European guarantees to redistribute the migrants before it did so.

The migrants were transferred from the ship operated by SOS Mediterranee to an Italian coastguard vessel and taken to shore in Lampedusa, Italian television images showed.

French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said there had been an "ad hoc" agreement to divide the migrants between five countries -- Italy, France, Germany, Portugal and Luxembourg.

France and Germany have agreed to take 25 percent of the migrants each, with Italy to take 10 percent.

"We now need to agree on a genuine temporary European mechanism," Castaner added.

The Italian coastguard will send a vessel to pick up the migrants at sea in order not to disturb port operations, Italian media reported.

Under far-right leader Salvini, charity vessels with rescued migrants on board faced fines of up to a million euros as well as the arrest of the captain and impounding of the boat.

"Having been designated a place of safety that qualifies as such is good news," said Nicola Stalla, search and rescue coordinator aboard the Ocean Viking.

"After disembarkation, the Ocean Viking should head back to her search and rescue mission... because people continue to die in these waters where no rescue ship is currently present," Stalla said in a statement.

- 'Refugee camp of Europe' -

Salvini pulled the plug on the previous government in August in the hope of snap elections.

His move backfired and the League leader is now in opposition after previous ally the Five Star Movement and the centre-left Democratic Party agreed a coalition.

"Here we go, ports open without limits," Salvini tweeted after the safe port announcement.

While Salvini spent much of his time as minister launching diatribes against migrants and rescue charities, his replacement is a civil servant and immigration expert, Luciana Lamorgese.

Italian foreign minister and M5S leader Luigi Di Maio, Salvini's former ally, told Italian television that "the safe port was assigned because the European Union agreed to our request to take most of the migrants".

Culture Minister Dario Franceschini hailed the "end of Salvini's propaganda on the backs of desperate people at sea. Politics and good international relations are back to tackle and solve the migration problem."

Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), which runs the ship jointly with SOS Mediterranee, said the group included 18 minors.

Italy is trying to set up an automatic system for distributing migrants rescued in the Mediterranean between European countries, diplomatic sources said recently.

Such a deal would put an end to the case-by-case negotiations over who will take in those saved during the perilous crossing from North Africa, which has seen vulnerable asylum-seekers trapped in limbo at sea for lengthy periods.

France and Germany have reportedly given their green light to the new system, which could also involve Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Romania and Spain.

- 'Painful process' -

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is expected to discuss the plan with France's President Emmanuel Macron when the latter visits Rome on Wednesday.

It will then be studied in more detail at a meeting of interior ministers on September 23 in Malta, ahead of a European summit in October in Luxembourg.