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Abandoned at sea: Migrants left in limbo as Italian hardliners turn ship away

Daunting
voyage: The
Aquarius was
last night off the
coast of Sicily
but may have to
go all the way to
Valencia to
unload PICS: AP/EPA

A RESCUE ship with more than 600 migrants on board, including children and pregnant women, is marooned in the Med.

The Aquarius, operated by aid group SOS Méditerranée, rescued passengers from sinking boats crewed by people smugglers.

But Italy — whose navy had helped with the mercy mission 35 miles off the coast of Sicily — insisted its involvement would end there and would not let the ship dock.

Exhausted: Migrants packed on the ship after Italy refused to welcome it

Matteo Salvini, interior minister in the populist government, said: ‘Enough! Saving lives is a duty but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp isn’t.’

Then Spain’s newly-elected Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez gave the order for Valencia to accept the ship, saying: ‘It’s our duty to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.’

But SOS Méditerranée said the 750-mile voyage posed a major challenge. Maritime operations manager Antoine Laurent said it would take at least two days and that would not be possible with 629 people on board.

He said: ‘We would need a resupply at sea which is not so easy to organise so we urge Italy to find a solution very soon.’

‘Enough!’ Matteo Salvini (left) and Pedro Sánchez

Food and water were due to run out last night while the ship waited in the Med.

The Doctors Without Borders charity, which has staff on board, said some passengers had water in their lungs and chemical burns caused by exposure to spilled fuel mixed with seawater. Seven of them are pregnant. Dr David Beversluis added: ‘All survivors are exhausted and dehydrated because they spent many hours adrift.’

Italy initially asked Malta to take the migrants as the ship was 27 miles away. But the country’s prime minister Joseph Muscat refused to get involved, accusing his neighbours of violating international norms and ‘creating a dangerous situation’.

Spain’s intervention was welcomed by Italy and Malta. But Mr Salvini said Malta’s attitude illustrated how his country had been left to cope alone with a huge influx of migrants heading to the EU via Libya.

He said other European countries, including Germany, are involved in rescues but don’t want to take in the passengers they save. Refusing to accept the ship was an ‘important first signal’, he said.