The interior ministry denied a civilian vessel permission to dock at an Italian port after it responded to a distress call and picked up 66 rescued migrants.
The Vos Thalassa is a private boat which works supporting offshore operations by French oil and gas company Total, but on Monday evening the ship responded to a distress call off the Libyan coast. Arriving on the scene before the Libyan Coast Guard, Vos Thalaassa took 66 migrants onboard and requested permission to dock in Italy, which was denied.
The past month has seen Italy's new Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini of the nationalist League, clamp down on arrivals to the country by sea. The new coalition government set a goal of zero arrivals, and in June triggered an international outcry when it refused to let dock French NGO rescue ship Aquarius carrying 630 migrants, before Spain stepped in to help.
Salvini has said ports will be closed to foreign NGO ships "all summer", accusing the vessels of aiding people traffickers, and on Sunday he said he would also demand the closure of ports to "ships of international missions" including merchant and military ships carrying migrants.
But the Thalassa incident is the first time a private Italian-owned and Italian-classed ship has been banned from docking at port, adding a new element to the ongoing debate.
Because the boat usually spends its time patrolling in the Mediterranean, it has been involved in migrant rescues before. In 2017, on one occasion the ship picked up more than 1,000 people in 24 hours, and last week it took 212 migrants aboard.
Government sources cited by both Italy's Rai News and newswire Ansa said that Vos Thalassa's intervention was "not necessary" since the Libyan Coast Guard was close by. The sources said that Salvini as well as Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, and the country's Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli were informed of the situation.
The 66 rescued migrants were transferred to a ship of the Italian Coast Guard, while the Vos Thalassa remains in the Mediterranean.
"Proud of the Italian Coast Guard which with the ship Diciotti took on board 60 migrants who were endangering the life of the Italian cruiser Vos Thalassa. Now onwards with investigations to punish troublemakers," Italy's Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Danilo Toninelli of the M5S, wrote on Twitter.