Italy on Wednesday sent a navy patrol boat to Libya and seized a German rescue ship in dramatic steps aimed at ending the migrant crisis that has engulfed Europe in recent years.
The crew on board the Iuventa, operated by the NGO Jugend Rettet, is being questioned on the orders of the Italian prosecutor.
While investigators suspect "the crime of clandestine immigration'' was committed by some of the Jugend Rettet boat's crew, prosecutor Ambrogio Cartosio told reporters that "my personal conviction was that the motive is humanitarian, exclusively humanitarian.''
Jugend Rettet said on its Facebook page Wednesday that it went to Lampedusa on instructions from the Rome-based maritime rescue coordination center after being asked to help in a search-and-rescue mission on Tuesday.
"As it happened during other stops at this port, the crew was questioned by the local police, which also entered the ship,'' Jugend Rettet said. After a warrant-authorized search of the ship, authorities seized the Iuventa, which will eventually be taken to the main island of Sicily.
Cartosio stressed that no individual members of the crew have been charged and the investigation was ongoing to see which of them might have made contact with smugglers at sea.
"There is no indication [the crew] was paid,'' by smugglers, "nor is there any element to make us think there is a stable tie between the ship and Libyan traffickers," Cartosio said.
New rules for NGOs
It is the first time Italian police have seized a humanitarian boat. The move came amidst growing suspicion over the role non-governmental organizations are playing in picking up migrants off the Libya coast and bringing them to Italian ports.
Jugend Rettet was one of several NGOs which declined this week to sign on to new rules promoted by Italy's interior minister and aimed at ensuring rescue groups don't end up effectively helping human traffickers.
The humanitarian groups say they are only interested in saving lives, warning that thousands of people would die if they were not out at sea. Despite their efforts, 2,200 migrants have died this year trying to reach Europe from northern Africa.
But Italians are getting tired of playing host to thousands of migrants.
The number of migrant arrivals in Italy in July was down dramatically on the same month last year, suggesting that efforts to train and better equip the Libyan coast guard could be having an impact.
The Interior Ministry said 11,193 new arrivals had been registered in July, compared with 23,552 in July 2016.
Italy's naval mission to Libya is aimed at holding that trajectory.
Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti said Italy was providing technical support, not seeking to impose a "hostile" naval blockade designed to prevent the departure of migrant boats.
Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said last week that the naval mission was being organized following a request from Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of conflict-torn Libya's U.N.-backed unity government.