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Ship carrying 230 migrants docks at French port

A rescue ship carrying 230 migrants docked at the French port of Toulon on Friday amid a blazing row between France and Italy over which country is responsible for them.

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.

The ship docked at 8:50 am (0750 GMT) and “passengers have started to disembark”, regional prefect Evence Richard told reporters.

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 Thursday that the migrants were Italy’s responsibility under EU rules, and that the French move was an “exceptional” measure that would not guide future action.

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 EU as a whole.

He said France had acted according to its “humanitarian duty”.

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 must shoulder more of the burden for taking in the thousands of migrants trying to reach Europe from North Africa every year.

– International waiting zone –

A French doctor boarded the ship before it docked, Meryl Sotty, a spokesperson for its operator SOS Mediterranee, told AFP.

The doctor was to identify the most vulnerable members of the migrant group who would be brought on land first, followed by women, children and families, she said.

The migrants, more than 50 of whom are children, are to be placed in an international waiting zone pending processing of requests for asylum.

An AFP reporter saw military buses enter the port to transport the migrants.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, head of Italy’s most right-wing government in decades, has appeared ready to push the dispute to the top of the European agenda.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said Thursday the request had been for “234 migrants, when Italy has taken in 90,000 just this year”.

Nine European nations have committed to host 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.

In retaliation for Italy’s stance, France has suspended a plan to take 3,500 refugees currently in Italy, part of a European burden-sharing accord, and urged Germany and other EU nations to do the same.

– Stricter border checks –

French police said Friday it had also reinforced controls at several Italian border crossings.

The flare-up of tensions echoes European migrant disputes four years ago, when French President Emmanuel Macron in particular clashed with Italy’s populist interior minister Matteo Salvini.

France had insisted that under international maritime law, Rome had to take in the Ocean Viking.

But Italy’s Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said this week that he was sending a signal to EU nations that they must play a bigger part.

Rome wants “an agreement to establish, on the basis of population, how migrants with a right to asylum are relocated to various countries”, Tajani said ahead of a meeting of EU ministers next week.

In June, around a dozen EU countries, including France, agreed to take in migrants who arrive in Italy and other main entry points.

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 the Italian authorities.