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Italy Refuses to Help Migrants, Leaves Task to Libya

FILE - Refugees and migrants wait to be rescued by members of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms, after leaving Libya trying to reach European soil aboard an overcrowded rubber boat, north of Libyan coast, May 6, 2018.

Italy continued its hardline stance against migrants stranded off its coast, telling European charities to stop rescuing the migrants and leave them to be picked up the Libyan coast guard instead.

"Let the Libyan authorities do their work of rescue, recovery and return (of migrants) to their country, as they have been doing for some time, without the ships of the voracious NGOs disturbing them or causing trouble," Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said. "Italian ports are and will be closed to those who aid human traffickers."

On Sunday, a Spanish aid group Proactiva Open Arms said the Italian coast guard had received a distress signal from six boats carrying about 1,000 people, but that Italy had told rescue groups like Proactiva that their help was not needed.

Instead, the Italian coast guard alerted Libya and handed off the rescue operation to its Libyan counterpart.

In recent weeks, Italy's new populist government has cracked down on foreign rescue ships operating in the Mediterranean.

Salvini, who is also deputy prime minister, has repeatedly accused the charities of working alongside human smugglers in trying to get the migrants to Europe.

Besides the 1,000 migrants mentioned by Proactiva, two other ships carrying hundreds of migrants -- the German NGO ship Lifeline and Danish container ship Alexander Maersk -- are currently in the Mediterranean awaiting instructions on where they will be allowed to dock.

They were denied permission by both Italy and Malta.

Human rights groups have criticized the Italian practice of leaving the migrants' fate in the hands of Libya. They allege that migrants are abused in Libya and the North African country is not seen as a "safe'' port of call, as required by international law.