ABOARD THE OPEN ARMS IN THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA (AP) — A Spanish rescue boat plucked 60 migrants Saturday from a rubber dinghy held together with duct tape in the Mediterranean Sea near Libya, igniting another political row between Italy and Malta over who should let the aid boat dock.
The vessel, Open Arms, run by Spanish aid group Proactiva Open Arms, said it rescued the migrants — including five women, a nine-year-old child and three teenagers — after it spotted the rubber boat just floating in the sea. Later in the day, Spanish authorities reporting saving 63 other people trying to reach its southern coast.
While European politicians bickered about where the migrants should go, those rescued by the Open Arms were jubilant, jumping, chanting and hugging their rescuers.
Bitcha Honoree said he knew the risk he was taking when he boarded the dinghy with 59 others in the middle of the night with only the full moon illuminating the dark water. Some of his friends had survived past crossings from Libya and made it to Europe but others had drowned.
But after having been sold as a slave, kidnapped and tortured in Libya while awaiting his chance to get aboard a smuggler’s boat, the 39-year-old Honoree, from Cameroon, decided he needed to try.
“It’s better to die than to continue being treated this bad,” he told The Associated Press just moments after being rescued some 30 nautical miles off the coast of Libya.
Krisley Dokouada, a 9-year-old boy from Central African Republic, was rescued along with his parents. His eyes sparkled when the crew let him sit in the captain’s seat on the bridge for a few minutes.
Others rescued Saturday included six Libyans and people from Mali, Eritrea, Egypt, Bangladesh, South Sudan, Guinea and other countries.
But Italy’s right-wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini quickly declared that the Spanish rescue boat “can forget about arriving in an Italian port” and claimed it should go to Malta, the nearest port.
Malta swiftly pushed back, with its interior minister contending that the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily, was closer to the boat.
“Quit spreading incorrect news, dragging Malta into it for no reason,” Maltese Interior Minister Michael Farrugia tweeted, attaching a map that he said indicated the rescue occurred in waters between Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa.
To the west, Spain’s Maritime Rescue Service says it picked up 63 others Saturday trying to reach country’s southern Mediterranean coast while authorities looked for another missing boat. It said 58 migrants were found in the Strait of Gibraltar while five more were rescued further east. A rescue vessel and a helicopter were looking for another reported boat in the area.
The Open Arms is the third humanitarian rescue ship to come into the crosshairs of Salvini’s crackdown in the last three weeks.
Even though the number of migrants arriving in Europe is sharply down this year from 2017, migration issues have deepened political divisions in the European Union, fueled in part by the demands of anti-migrant nationalist parties.
Salvini has vowed that no more humanitarian groups’ rescue boats will dock in Italy, but cracks have started showing between in Italy’s new populist coalition government over his hard-line approach.
Roberto Fico, a leading figure in the 5-Star Movement, the ruling coalition’s senior partner, told reporters Saturday after inspecting a migrant reception center in a Sicilian town that “I wouldn’t close the ports.”
Fico admitted that Libya now “isn’t a place with security” and said its coast guard “needs the support of the Italian navy and coast guard” and humanitarian aid ships. He urged more solidarity with the migrants, who he said have “dramatic stories that touch the heart.”
Rights groups have voiced strong concerns that migrants rescued by the Libyan coast guard and brought back there will face more inhumane treatment.
Salvini contended Saturday on Twitter that the Open Arms had taken on the migrants before a Libyan boat in Libya’s search-and-rescue zone could intervene.
But the Open Arms’ captain, Marco Martinez, said he told the Rome-based Maritime Rescue Coordination Center about the migrants and was instructed to call Libyan maritime authorities, who didn’t answer. The captain said officials in Rome then told him it was up to him to decide whether to carry out the rescue.
“I took the decision to save these human beings,” Martinez told an Associated Press journalist who accompanied the rescue from a dinghy belonging to its sister ship Astral.
The AP journalist saw a Libyan coast guard vessel approached the Open Arms and the Astral as the rescue was being concluded, but it made a U-turn and left, ordering both boats to return to Spain.
Saturday’s rescue was witnessed by four European Parliament lawmakers. One of them, Javi Lopez of Spain, said authorities in Spain were studying the possibility of taking in the migrants since Italy and Malta would not.
Proactiva Open Arms spokeswoman Laura Lanuza said the boats were heading north while negotiations with different countries were ongoing.
A day earlier, the Open Arms crew said that it was warned off from rescuing a boat in trouble by Italy’s coordination center, which said the Libyan coast guard would handle it. The Libyan coast guard rescued 16 people, but another 100 migrants were reported missing and feared dead at sea after the boat capsized.
Even before those deaths Friday, the U.N. refugee agency said 1,137 migrants are estimated to have died crossing the Mediterranean so far this year.
Earlier in June, Spain took in 630 migrants from another rescue group’s vessel, the Aquarius, after they spent nearly a week stuck in the Mediterranean after both Malta and Italy refused to let the boat dock.
D’Emilio reported from Rome. Stephen Calleja in Malta and Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed.