MARSEILLE, FRANCE - A vessel carrying 422 migrants rescued off the coast of Libya has been given permission to dock in Italy after issuing an urgent appeal for shelter from a looming storm, its operator said Sunday.
The SOS Mediterranee group, which operates the Ocean Viking rescue ship, said it had received the green light to bring the migrants ashore in the Sicilian port of Augusta after several earlier appeals went unheeded.
It said it expected the vessel to arrive in Sicily on Sunday evening.
The French-based group said its passengers included babies, children, pregnant women and unaccompanied minors.
"They must urgently be disembarked in a safe port," Luisa Albera, the head of the group's rescue operations, had earlier urged, warning that weather conditions in the central Mediterranean were deteriorating.
She described the health of several of the migrants as fragile.
Eight tested positive for COVID-19 and were isolating aboard the ship, she added.
Libya has become a key jumping off point for irregular migration to Europe in the chaotic years since the 2011 overthrow and killing of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in a NATO-backed uprising.
While many migrants have drowned in rubber dinghies and rickety fishing boats, thousands have been intercepted by the Libyan coast guard and returned to Libya, with the support of Italy and the EU.
NGOs have criticized those returns, arguing that Libya is not safe for the migrants.
Since the Ocean Viking returned to sea on January 11 after being blocked in Italy for five months it has picked up a total of 798 people.
On Jan. 21-22, it rescued 374 people at sea off Libya and took them to Augusta.
Of 424 people who boarded the Ocean Viking on Thursday and Friday, a pregnant woman and her partner were flown by helicopter to nearby Malta.
More than 1,200 migrants and asylum-seekers died while crossing the Mediterranean in 2020, according to the International Organization for Migration.