Migrant rescue ship heads for Italy after judge overrules Salvini

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Proactiva Open Arms' founder Oscar Camps: 'We won the appeal'

Proactiva Open Arms' founder Oscar Camps: 'We won the appeal' (AFP Photo/PAU BARRENA)

Rome (AFP) - Spanish humanitarian ship Open Arms headed for the Italian island of Lampedusa on Wednesday with 147 rescued migrants on board after a judge in Rome suspended far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini's decree banning them from Italy's territorial waters.

The Proactiva Open Arms charity which operates the ship said it would not try to force entry to Lampedusa port, as another rescue vessel, the Sea-Watch 3 did in June, prompting its seizure and the arrest of its captain.

The Open Arms is seeking shelter from 2.5-metre (eight-foot) swells along with the Ocean Viking ship operated by SOS Mediterranea and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has more than 350 migrants plucked from the Mediterranean on board.

Both Italy and Malta have refused both vessels permission to dock and unload their passengers.

Since coming to power in June 2018, Salvini has repeatedly taken a hard line against migrants.

Salvini announced a swift appeal against the judge's ruling and signed another decree, saying that the Open Arms behaviour showed its "political objective of bring (migrants) to Italy".

Proactiva Open Arms' founder Oscar Camps told journalists in Madrid: "We won the appeal which we filed at an administrative court in Italy against the security decree."

- 'What a strange country' -

The decree, signed by Salvini in early August, banned the Open Arms from entering Italy's territorial waters, arguing that the measure was needed to protect public order.

Under the decree, the Proactiva Open Arms could be slapped with a fine of up to one million euros ($1.1 million) and its boat seized if it disobeyed.

But Camps said the court decision now allows the 147 migrants on board to disembark in Italy.

"All that is missing is that we be assigned a port," Camps said.

"It's a success. International maritime law prevails," Camps said, before adding that in Italy "everyone does not think like Salvini".

He recalled that under international agreements, rescued migrants should be taken to the closest available port which in the case of the Open Arms is in Italy or Malta.

"What a strange country," Salvini complained from a beach in the northwest of Italy. "The court in Lazio (Rome) wants to authorise a foreign boat to disembark foreign migrants in Italy."

- 'Someone could die' -

Salvini is trying to bring down the government, so far without success, after last week pulling the plug on the ruling coalition between his League and the Five Star Movement (M5S).

His party has been riding high in opinion polls, largely thanks to his tough anti-migrant policies.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Wednesday wrote to Salvini and Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta asking for the minors aboard to be allowed to disembark the rescue ship, Italian media reported.

Trenta sent two navy vessels to escort the Open Arms as it headed for Lampedusa, with a view to evacuating 32 minors from the vessel after 13 days at sea.

Camps warned earlier that fights may break out at any moment among the migrants stranded on the vessel.

"We could have a fight within a half-hour with a serious injury, or worse, someone could die on board due to violence," he told Spanish radio station Cadena Ser.

"It would be a tragedy, it would be unforgivable."

The 19 crew members on the Open Arms are finding it harder to contain tensions on board, he added.

Many of the migrants, mainly from Africa, are suffering from "very high levels of post-traumatic stress" and anxiety over their future.

They must share just two bathrooms and a living space of only 180 square metres (2,000 square feet), Camps said.

Two babies were evacuated by helicopter from the ship to Malta on Wednesday for health reasons, Camps said.

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