Italy prosecutors probe Salvini over migrant ship limbo

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Both Italy and Malta have refused Open Arms permission to dock and unload its passengers

Both Italy and Malta have refused Open Arms permission to dock and unload its passengers (AFP Photo/-)

Rome (AFP) - Italian prosecutors have opened an investigation into alleged kidnapping and abuse of office after far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini prevented a charity ship carrying rescued migrants from docking.

While the Open Arms rescue ship lies anchored within swimming distance of southern island Lampedusa with 134 migrants on board including around 30 children, a Sicily prosecutor on Saturday sent judicial police to coastguard headquarters in Rome as part of the probe.

Police took records of communications between the interior ministry and rescue services in order to verify the chain of command for who is preventing the ship docking, the left-leaning Repubblica daily said.

The move came after the coastguard on Friday took the unprecedented step of writing to Salvini to say "there are no impediments of any kind to docking without delay."

- Safe port -

The national search and rescue coordination office in Rome has also asked the interior ministry for the urgent assignment of a safe port.

Italy has evacuated a handful of people from the Open Arms for medical treatment but Salvini refuses to allow the vessel to dock despite other European countries agreeing to take in the people on board.

The captain of the ship operated by Proactiva Open Arms, Marc Reig, said on Friday that the migrants, rescued after leaving chaos-stricken Libya, were "broken psychologically".

The mainly African migrants aboard Open Arms have been plucked from boats in the Mediterranean this month, with weather conditions encouraging more departures from Libya.

Around 30 minors are on board, some unaccompanied, and the Palermo prosecutor has assigned someone to take charge of them, with Italian media suggesting they could be evacuated soon.

"The world is witness to what the 134 people who are waiting to disembark have had to endure," Open Arms tweeted.

"It is only the lack of will of the politicians who have the power to decide that separates them from a safe haven," the Spanish charity said.

- Political not humanitarian -

Salvini tweeted that if the ship had gone back to Spain 16 days ago "you would already have been home."

"The NGOs' battle is political and certainly not humanitarian, played out using the lives of migrants," he said.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Thursday that France, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg had agreed to take in the migrants.

But interior ministry sources on Friday said that "no European country has taken formal steps to take the migrants on board."

The fate of the migrants aboard the Open Arms vessel is at the centre of a political crisis in Italy.

Earlier this month, Salvini signed a decree banning the Open Arms from Italian waters, saying it was to protect public order.

But Proactiva appealed to the administrative court which on Wednesday suspended his decree.

Salvini then signed a new one blocking the ship, but in a demonstration of his diminished power, Italy's Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta blocked it as an act of "conscience".

Another rescue ship, the Ocean Viking, operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders (MSF), is also looking for a port to dock with more than 350 migrants on board.