Spanish NGO boat seeks safe port for 124 people rescued in Mediterranean

MADRID (Reuters) - A Spanish charity rescue boat sought safe port on Friday after Italy rejected its request to disembark 124 people saved from two migrant rafts in the Mediterranean, the organization said.

Non-governmental organization (NGO) rescue boats have largely disappeared from the Mediterranean over the last year as governments have tightened controls. Charity ships that have rescued migrants have faced lengthy standoffs in their attempt to disembark those onboard.

Barcelona-based NGO Open Arms rescued 55 people from a sinking raft on Thursday, among them two babies, and a further 69 people from another boat during Thursday night, the organization said on Twitter.

Two heavily pregnant women were among those rescued from the second raft, Open Arms founder Oscar Camps said on Twitter, while many showed signs of violence suffered in Libya before beginning the sea journey.

“As was to be expected, we have received word from the Italian government. A 50,000 euro ($55,500) fine and seizure of the Open Arms hangs over us if we enter Italian waters, this in addition to the threats of the Spanish government,” Open Arms wrote on Twitter.

The boat was heading north in search of a safe port, the organization added.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who heads the far-right League party, is pushing to increase fines for rescue boats and said on Thursday any which enter Italian waters will be seized.

“I would tell them that the government of Spain hopes they will act in accordance with international agreements and international law,” Isabel Celaa, spokeswoman for the caretaker Socialist government, told reporters on Friday when asked about the boat.

The Open Arms was blocked from operating in the Mediterranean earlier this year after Spanish maritime authorities said the NGO had violated international agreements that rescued migrants should be taken to the closest available port.

Spain replaced Italy earlier this year as Europe’s main migrant destination as the western Mediterranean route from Morocco to the Iberian peninsula became the most active in the region.

While numbers of arrivals to the continent overall have fallen consistently in recent years, immigration remains divisive in the European Union, with one poll finding it voters’ key concern ahead of EU elections in May.

($1 = 0.9003 euros)

Reporting by Sam Edwards; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne

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