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France accepts migrant ship as row with Italy escalates

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on Friday slammed what she called the "aggressive reaction" of the French government to taking in a migrant rescue vessel rejected by Rome.

France accepts migrant ship as row with Italy escalates
The Ocean Viking rescue ship arrives at Toulon, southern France, escorted by a military boat on November 11, 2022 after being turned away by Italy. (Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON / AFP)

France accepted the Ocean Viking and the 234 migrants onboard, but in return said it would suspend a previous plan to take in 3,500 refugees currently in Italy, and urged other EU nations to do the same. 

“I was very struck by the aggressive reaction of the French government, which is incomprehensible and unjustified,” Meloni told a press conference in Rome.

READ ALSO: Why are France and Italy rowing over migrants and what are the consequences?

The ship docked at the French port of Toulon on Friday morning, as relations between the two countries soured further.

The Ocean Viking, operated by a French NGO, had picked up the migrants at sea near the Libyan coast before spending weeks seeking a port to accept them.

France had never before allowed a rescue vessel carrying migrants from the Mediterranean to land on its coast, but did so this time because Italy had refused access.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Thursday that the migrants were Italy’s responsibility under EU rules, and that the French move was an “exceptional” measure.

He said Italy’s refusal to accept the migrants was “incomprehensible” and that there would be “severe consequences” for Italy’s bilateral relations with France, and with the European Union as a whole.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Thursday the Ocean Viking could dock at the port of Toulon and a third of the migrant passengers will be “relocated” to France. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

He said France had acted according to its “humanitarian duty”, while Italy had “lacked humanity”.

The Ocean Viking ship had initially sought access to Italy’s coast, which is closest to where the migrants were picked up, saying health and sanitary conditions onboard were rapidly worsening. 

Italy refused, saying other nations needed to take in more of the  migrants trying to reach Europe from North Africa every year.

The migrants, more than 50 of whom are children, were taken to an “international waiting zone” pending the processing of requests for asylum.

READ ALSO: Anger as Italy accused of illegally rejecting migrants rescued at sea

They would not be allowed to leave the zone until the process was completed in about three weeks, the government said. Asylum interviews were to start on Saturday.

The shelter, a short drive from the port, was heavily guarded, an AFP photographer said.

Some 600 police were deployed for the ship’s arrival, with the Red Cross in charge of humanitarian aid.

Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni oo Friday condemned what she called the “aggressive reaction” of the French government to taking in the rescue ship rejected by Rome. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

Nine European nations have committed to hosting two-thirds of the migrants, Darmanin said Thursday, with the remaining third staying in France.

Germany will take “more than 80”, while Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Malta, Portugal, Luxembourg and Ireland will also contribute in the name of “European solidarity”, he said.

So far this year, 164 asylum seekers have been moved from Italy to other nations in the bloc that volunteered to accept them.

That is a fraction of the more than 88,000 that have reached its shores so far this year, of which 14 percent arrived after being rescued by NGO vessels, according to Italian authorities.

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POLITICS

Italy’s government to continue sending weapons to Ukraine in 2023

Italy's new government issued a decree on Thursday to continue sending weapons to Ukraine through 2023, continuing the previous administration's policy of support to Kyiv.

Italy's government to continue sending weapons to Ukraine in 2023

The decree extends to December 31, 2023 an existing authorisation for “the transfer of military means, materials and equipment to the government authorities of Ukraine,” according to a government statement.

Since taking office in October, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has repeatedly voiced her support for Kyiv while underlying the importance of the Atlantic alliance.

In her first speech to parliament, the leader of the Brothers of Italy party pledged to “continue to be a reliable partner of NATO in supporting Ukraine.”

Her predecessor Mario Draghi was a staunch supporter of Kyiv, but the issue of sending arms to Ukraine split the biggest party in parliament during his coalition government, the Five Star Movement.

That friction led to the early elections that brought Meloni to power.

Parliament now has 60 days to vote the decree into law.

READ ALSO: Outcry in Italy after Berlusconi defends Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

Despite Meloni’s efforts to reassure her Western allies of Italy’s support for the EU’s and NATO’s Ukraine strategy, including sanctions on Russia, the close ties to Russia of her two coalition partners have come under scrutiny.

Both Matteo Salvini of the League party and former premier Silvio Berlusconi, who leads Forza Italia, have long enjoyed warm relations with Russia.

In October, an audio tape of Berlusconi was leaked to the media in which the former premier described how he had received a birthday present of vodka from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the tape, he also expressed concerns about sending weapons and cash to Kyiv and appeared to blame the war on Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Berlusconi later issued a statement saying his personal position on Ukraine “does not deviate” from that of Italy and the EU.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Salvini, too, has come under fire for his relations with Moscow, including a report that he dined with Russia’s ambassador to Rome just days after that country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Salvini, who has criticised EU sanctions as ineffective, has long admired Putin, even wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the Russian leader’s face.

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