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Far-right Italian minister faces probe as church agrees to take in migrants

Prosecutors open inquiry into Interior Minister Matteo Salvini for refusing to allow asylum-seekers to disembark; solution found for over 100 aboard Diciotti after standoff

Migrants aboard the Italian Coast Guard ship Diciotti gather on the deck as they await decisions in the port of Catania, Italy, August 24, 2018. (Orietta Scardino/ANSA via AP)
Migrants aboard the Italian Coast Guard ship Diciotti gather on the deck as they await decisions in the port of Catania, Italy, August 24, 2018. (Orietta Scardino/ANSA via AP)

ROME, Italy — Prosecutors in Sicily on Saturday opened an inquiry into Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini for “illegal confinement, illegal arrest and abuse of power,” reports said, over his refusal to allow over 100 rescued migrants off a coastguard ship.

Catholic bishops, tiny Albania and Ireland agreed to take the 140 migrants blocked aboard an Italian coast guard vessel, Premier Giuseppe Conte said Saturday, announcing the end of 10-day standoff over the asylum-seekers but making clear an angry Italy could avenge a perceived lack of overall European Union solidarity by refusing to approve the bloc’s next multi-year budget.

“Italy must take note that the ‘spirit of solidarity is struggling to translate into concrete acts,” Conte said in a statement. Conte referred to declarations made at an EU summit in late June promising to help Italy and other Mediterranean countries deal with the burden of migrants rescued from human traffickers’ unseaworthy boats.

Salivini told a political meeting that “the migrants on board the Diciotti ship will disembark in the coming hours,” adding that they would be taken in by the Italian church “by bishops who are opening their doors, their hearts and their wallets”.

Authorities earlier allowed a dozen migrants to leave the Diciotti where they have been stranded for days, as it also hailed Albania for offering to accept some of those on board.

Rome has blocked most of the migrants from stepping off the boat which docked at the port of Catania in Sicily on Monday night, leaving them trapped as Italy pushes other EU nations to take them in.

Their fate has sparked a fresh immigration row between Italy’s populist government and the EU, with Rome on Friday threatening to pull some of its funding for the bloc as a “compensatory measure” if it refuses to help.

Italian Deputy Premier and Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, speaks at a Lega party’s meeting in Pinzolo, Italy, Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018. (Daniele Panato/ANSA via AP)

Prosecutors in Sicily said that they were now investigating Salvini in connection with the migrants’ plight. The minister earlier brushed aside reports of a broader inquiry into who was responsible saying late Friday that officials were following orders issued by “the director — that is to say me.”

Prosecutors would have to seek permission from a special panel to question Salvini. As a lawmaker, Salvini also holds immunity from prosecution that could only be lifted by fellow lawmakers.

A few hours before Conte’s announcement, Italian Red Cross ambulances waiting at dockside took away six ill men, suspected of having tuberculosis, pneumonia or other infections, and seven of the 11 women who were still aboard.

Authorities had said the women recounted how they had been raped while in Libya for months, awaiting the opportunity to leave in migrant smugglers’ boats.

Four other women chose not to leave the ship because their husbands were blocked aboard.

An official wearing a protective suit gestures towards migrants as they sit on the deck of the Italian Coast Guard vessel “Diciotti” in the Sicilian port of Catania, on August 23, 2018, as they wait to disembark following a rescue operation at sea.
(AFP/ Giovanni Isolino)

Italy’s Foreign Ministry praised Albania “for its decision to welcome 20 refugees from the Diciotti, a sign of great solidarity,” in a tweet.

Albania, which is not an EU member, is the only country so far to offer to host some of those on board the ship.

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR called on EU member states to “urgently” provide places for those stranded on the ship.

“In the meantime, UNHCR urges Italian authorities to allow the immediate disembarkation of those on board,” it said.

‘Borders of Europe’

Migration is a hot-button issue in Italy, where hundreds of thousands of people have arrived since 2013, fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Under EU rules people must seek asylum in their country of arrival, but Rome has increasingly barred boats from docking at its ports.

A high-level meeting of a dozen EU member states in Brussels on Friday failed to produce an immediate solution for the Diciotti migrants.

“The European Union has decided to turn its back on Italy once again,” Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio wrote on his Facebook page.

In this file photo taken on May 10, 2018 migrants stand on the deck of the French NGO’s ship Aquarius, as it approaches the Italian coast. (AFP / LOUISA GOULIAMAKI)

“They want the 20 billion euros ($23 billion) paid by Italian citizens? Then let them demonstrate that they deserve it and that they are taking charge of a problem that we can no longer face alone. The borders of Italy are the borders of Europe,” he added.

Brussels quickly hit back at Di Maio’s “threats” on Friday.

EU figures for 2016 say Italy contributed just under 14 billion euros to the EU budget — less than one percent of its gross national income — while the bloc spent 11.6 billion euros in Italy.

Salvini stopped the majority of the migrants disembarking from the Diciotti after they were rescued on August 15, but he allowed 27 unaccompanied minors off the boat on Wednesday.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, center, attends a local election rally in Cinisello Balsamo, near Milan, Italy, on June 17, 2018. (Matteo Bazzi/ANSA via AP)

Opinion polls suggest that Salvini’s stance has boosted his far-right League party’s approval rating to around 30 percent — a more than 10 point jump from its showing in March’s election.

It is now level with the Five Star Movement with which it has governed Italy since early June.

According to Salvini’s own ministry, migrant arrivals are more than 80 percent down on the same period last year, with just over 19,500 arriving up to August 23, compared to 98,000 in 2017.

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