Migrants land in Sicily as ship crew faces uncertain fate
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Migrants land in Sicily as ship crew faces uncertain fate

It was finally given permission to anchor in Catania

Migrants on board the Sea Watch cheer after they were granted landing in Italy.

A charity ship carrying 47 rescued migrants docked in the Sicilian port of Catania Thursday, where the crew feared legal action as Italy's far-right interior minister tries to stop new arrivals.

The Dutch-flagged Sea Watch 3, which had been waiting off the coast of Sicily with people it rescued in the Mediterranean on January 19, was finally given permission to anchor in Catania after six other countries agreed to take them in.

The exhausted migrants, including 15 minors, cheered and hugged the crew as the ship sailed into the harbour.

"I foresee that there may be problems with the authorities," Sea Watch's mission head Kim Heaton-Heather told AFPTV.

"But I am also very, very certain that in the end, no matter what allegations are brought against the organisation, the ship or the crew as whole, none of these allegations will stick and the truth of the matter will come out," he said.

France, Germany, Malta, Portugal, Romania and Luxembourg said they would share care of the mainly Sub-Saharan group.

It was not clear whether Italy would also host some of them.

The ship had been sheltering from a storm off the coastal town of Syracusa, which had been ready to welcome those saved.

Salvini has warned he is considering legal action against Sea Watch's crew, accusing them of sailing straight for Italy rather than taking the migrants to closer ports in Libya or Tunisia.

The German charity says it tried but failed to get a response from Tripoli or Tunis, and on Thursday launched an appeal for financial aid, tweeting "Help us with our legal costs!"

Read: ECHR orders Italy to provide medical assistance to marooned migrants

'Relentless campaign'

A migrant looks on from the deck of the Sea Watch 3 as it sails, escorted by a vessel of the Guardia di Finanza, off southeastern Sicily coats towards Catania.A migrant looks on from the deck of the Sea Watch 3 as it sails, escorted by a vessel of the Guardia di Finanza, off southeastern Sicily coats towards Catania.

People rescued at sea have frequently been left in limbo since Italy's anti-immigration government came to power in July, and on Wednesday Salvini said he was looking to ban all ships with rescued migrants from entering Italian waters.

The decision to send the ship to Catania raised red flags among migration and legal experts who said it might be impounded, as was the case with several rescue vessels previously in different Mediterranean ports.

Should that happen, it would take the last rescue charity ship operating in the central Mediterranean out of action.

The sole remainder would be the Italian Mare Jonio -- a surveillance boat which aims to spot migrants in distress but is not equipped to rescue them.

Catania prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro has made a name for himself as a legal thorn in the side of the NGOs that rescue migrants at sea.

In March 2018 he impounded the Open Arms ship as part of an investigation into the crew for allegedly aiding illegal migrants by refusing to hand them over to the Libyan coast guard.

The ship was released after a month following a court ruling that Libya could not be considered a safe country because of a lack of safeguards for human rights, but the investigation continues.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee said in December that the Aquarius would not sail again after "a relentless ongoing political, judicial and administrative campaign backed by several European states".

The rescue ship had been stuck in a French port for two months following the revocation of its registration.

 

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