Salvini in fresh warning to migrant rescue ships

Charity ships have drawn fire from Rome by attempting on occasion to stop migrants being taken back to crisis-hit Libya (AFP Photo/JONATHAN BORG)

Rome (AFP) - Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini signed a new directive Tuesday against charity vessels rescuing migrants off Libya, targeting the Italian ship Mare Jonio in particular.

Salvini, head of the anti-immigrant League party, warned that the Mare Jonio and others must obey the orders of authorities in foreign search and rescue regions -- a reference to the Libyan coastguard.

The minister had issued a first directive on the laws regarding rescue operations in March, saying there would be "sanctions" for those who explicitly violate international, European and national rescue regulations.

Charity ships have drawn fire from Rome by attempting on occasion to stop migrants being taken back to crisis-hit Libya, which human rights organisations say is not safe for repatriations.

The left-wing collective Mediterranea, which charters the Mare Jonio, slammed the directive as "mere propaganda".

The Italian ship set off on its latest mission on Sunday and was headed to patrol the area off Libya on Tuesday.

Mediterranea said an order to hand rescued migrants over to the Libyans would be "an incitement to commit a crime".

"If it was already an offence to return those rescued to Libya, today with the war in progress, it is simply criminal," it said.

The Mare Jonio rescued 49 migrants off the North African country in March after refusing to wait for a Libyan coastguard boat that was in the vicinity.

It took them to the Italian island of Lampedusa, where the ship was temporarily seized by the authorities as part of a probe into illegal immigration, before being given the all clear.

There is concern in Italy that recent violence in Libya will spark an exodus of people determined to seek safety in Europe.

Salvini has repeatedly said Italian ports are closed to all those attempting the perilous Mediterranean crossing.