Mayor Filippo Nogarin – a member of the Five Star Movement (M5S), the anti-establishment party currently governing Italy in coalition with the nationalist League – had said that he was ready to "open the port of Livorno and take in the ship Aquarius with its cargo of 629 human lives".
The vessel, which belongs to the French NGO SOS Méditerranée, remained stranded between Italy and Malta after rescuing hundreds of people at sea on Saturday night, including pregnant women and children. Both governments refused to allow the ship to dock, before Spain offered it safe port on Monday afternoon "to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe".
"I completely understand wanting to send Europe a signal, asking for a change in their migration policies, but this tug-of-war with Brussels cannot be carried out at the expense of hundreds of men, women and children," wrote Nogarin on Facebook.
"If we look the other way and cease to be 'human beings', we'll end up the same as the traffickers who profit by gambling with the lives and desperation of thousands of people."
By early Monday afternoon, however, the mayor's post had been deleted without immediate explanation.
Screenshots of Nogarin's since-deleted post were widely shared on social media.
Many speculated that he had withdrawn it under pressure from his party and its allies, who have pledged to take a stand against EU migration policies that they say leave Italy and its Mediterranean neighbours bearing the brunt of one of the biggest migration crises in a century.
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the League and joint deputy prime minister, promised to "close the ports" to migrant boats and to speed up the deportation of thousands of immigrants already in Italy. Meanwhile Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, a member of M5S and the minister in charge of the Italian coast guard, said that "this time everyone has to understand that international law cannot mean that Italy should be abandoned".
"We will always save human lives, but Malta is the alarm bell for a Europe that must change," he wrote on Twitter.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who on Monday asked the head of Nato for more assistance on the crisis in the Med, has said that migration is a "litmus test" for Italy's relations with the EU, promising that the new government will push for asylum seekers to be automatically and obligatorily resettled across member states.
Current EU rules require migrants to apply for asylum in the country in which they first arrive, rendering them unable to leave, often for many months, until their case is processed.
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Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP