Lampedusa mayor slams Rome over migrant boat standoff

Taimaz SZIRNIKS
The Ocean Viking rescue ship is still seeking a safe port for its 356 rescued migrants

The mayor of Italy's Lampedusa island on Thursday denounced the collapsing government for its failure to deal with migrant rescue boats, as a ship carrying 356 people remained stranded in the Mediterranean.

Mayor Salvatore Martello said the reception centre on the tiny isle was already over capacity and would struggle to house migrants currently stuck aboard the Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking.

The vessel, run by charities Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee, has sought a port for almost two weeks after rescuing four boats of migrants off the Libyan coast between 9 and 12 August.

"It would be difficult because the reception centre is saturated," Martello told AFP.

"The island no longer exists politically. It is just exploited in political clashes in Rome."

Lampedusa has long been a magnet for African migrants fleeing poverty and conflict.

Thousands have attempted to make the unsafe crossing from Libya in a bid to reach Europe this year, despite efforts to deter them.

Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has been accused of demonising migrants and leaving them to drown in the sea.

He has repeatedly insisted that rescued migrants can only land in Italy if other EU countries take them in.

Italian President Sergio Mattarella on Thursday said squabbling political parties had until Tuesday to form a workable coalition government, after the disintegration of a dysfunctional populist alliance threw the eurozone's third largest economy into political turmoil this week.

The plight of the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking, which was denied entry by both Italy and Malta, is the latest in a string of migrant boat standoffs with Italian authorities.

Late Thursday Portugal said it was "available" to help the migrant crisis off the coast of Italy.

"Portugal is available to welcome up to 35 of the 356 migrants who are on board the Ocean Viking," a joint statement from the foreign and interior ministries said.

France also has said it was ready to take in "a large number of migrants" from the Ocean Viking, while repeating it would not take in the vessel itself which should be allowed to dock "at the nearest port".

The Open Arms rescue ship was allowed to land in Lampedusa on Wednesday, with 83 migrants disembarking, after Italian justice ordered they be brought ashore.

Many of them had spent 19 days on board the ship after being picked up while in difficulty in waters off Libya.

There were initially 147 mainly African migrants on the ship but all minors and some suffering health problems had already disembarked.

A European deal to redistribute them has yet to be implemented.