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French rescue vessel Aquarius stranded again, seeks port

The operators of the migrant ship Aquarius on Monday called on Europe to find a safe haven for 141 people it rescued in the Mediterranean, saying Italy and Malta had again refused to let the vessel dock.

The Aquarius, which was left stranded with 630 migrants on board in June after being turned away by Rome and Valletta, resumed rescue operations off the Libyan coast last week.

On Friday, it picked up 141 people in two separate operations, half of them children and over a third of them women, but it has again struggled to find a port to bring them ashore.

Sophie Beau, president of the vessel’s French operator SOS Mediterranee, said the ship, currently at sea between Malta and the Italian island of Lampedusa, had again received “official negative replies” from the two countries.

“We’re asking all European countries to find a solution. We’re asking them to be responsible and find a safe port in the Mediterranean,” she said, accusing Italy and Malta of flouting international maritime law.

Tove Ernst, a spokesman for the European Commission, said it was in contact with “a number of member states that have approached us regarding the incident” to try to find a “swift resolution” to the standoff.

– Hardline stance –

Since June, Italy’s new far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has regularly turned away rescue ships operated by foreign NGOs, accusing them of playing into the hands of people smugglers.

On Saturday, he said the Gibraltar-flagged Aquarius would “never see an Italian port” again.

His hardline stance has sparked a row among EU members, underscoring their failure to come up with a common approach to the influx of people trying to escape conflict, persecution or poverty in Africa and the Middle East.

In June, Spain stepped in and welcomed the Aquarius.

France, which was within closer range but did not allow the boat access, took in 78 of the migrants after they landed in Spain.

However this time a Spanish government source told AFP that, as Spain is not the nearest port, “it is not the safest port” for the migrant ship to dock.

The French presidency said Monday that it was in touch with the other EU nations on the Mediterranean to “rapidly” find a port where the Aquarius can dock, while stressing that international maritime law states that the boat should be able to dock in the port that is closest.

Paris also voiced regret at the “very tough political stance” of the Italian government.

– ‘We can welcome these migrants’ –

The director of the French port of Sete on the Mediterranean coast said meanwhile Monday that he would be prepared to let the boat, carrying migrants mostly from Somalia and Eritrea to dock if the government gave the all clear.

“We have a port, three docks are available and we can welcome these migrants whenever, but they cannot come without the approval of the French authorities,” Jean-Claude Gayssot told AFP.

Leaders on the French island of Corsica had offered to welcome the Aquarius in June.

Meanwhile the government of Gibraltar announced Monday that the Aquarius would no longer be allowed to operate under its maritime flag.

The boat was registered in the British overseas territory, on Spain’s southern flank, in 2009.

For years, Italy pleaded with its EU partners for help with a massive influx of arrivals from Africa that has seen 700,000 people cross the Mediterranean and land in the country since 2013.