Italy prosecutor orders rescue ship seized

An Italian prosecutor has ordered the seizure of a rescue ship and the immediate evacuation of more than 80 migrants still aboard.

It caps a drama that saw 15 people jump overboard in a desperate bid to escape deteriorating conditions on the vessel and Spain dispatch a naval ship to try to resolve the crisis.

The order to seize the Open Arms, anchored off Italy's southernmost island of Lampedusa, came after Sicilian prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio boarded the ship and met with port authorities as part of an investigation into possible kidnapping charges resulting from the refusal of hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini to allow the migrants to get off the Spanish humanitarian ship, the news agency ANSA reported.

"Finally, the nightmare ends and 83 people on board will receive immediate assistance on land," Open Arms said on Twitter on Tuesday. It remained unclear when they would begin leaving the ship.

Salvini refused to open Italian ports, even after six countries stepped forward to take the migrants and despite a fissure in Italy's imploding governing coalition that expanded in recent days to include his handling of the crisis.

Earlier on Tuesday, Spain's caretaker Socialist government sent a navy ship to escort the Open Arms back to a Spanish port after at least 15 of the migrants jumped into the sea within view of Lampedusa, desperate to flee the vessel 19 days after they were rescued off Libya.

Those who jumped overboard were eventually picked up by Italian ships.

Until the action by the Italian prosecutor, the Spanish move was the first concrete signal promising an end to the humanitarian crisis involving the Open Arms, even if it added at least a week to the ordeal for the remaining 83 migrants aboard.

The migrants on the Open Arms were tantalisingly close to Lampedusa but forbidden by Salvini to disembark. The captain had previously told Italian authorities the crew of 17 was no longer able to maintain control, and they described the situation as "desperate".

After one Syrian national jumped and was rescued and brought to shore on Lampedusa, two more groups followed his lead. They were likewise ferried to land and spared a return to the ship, where officials say psychological and hygienic conditions have deteriorated markedly.

Dozens more have been evacuated in recent days for medical reasons or because they are minors. Officials said tensions on board were running high, with fights breaking out among the migrants.

Meanwhile, the Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking, which is operated by two French humanitarian groups and has 356 rescued migrants aboard, has been sailing between Malta and the Italian island of Linosa as it waits for a port of safety to be assigned.



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