France Ready to Accept Migrants From Aquarius Ship Amid Standoff With Italy

Matteo Salvini emmanuel Macron

The vessel Aquarius, operated by the aid group SOS Mediterranee, said the Italian coastguard leading the convoy has changed course to skirt Sardinia's east coast.

Italy demanded an apology after the French president accused the new Italian government of irresponsible behavior for refusing entry to a rescue ship with 629 migrants aboard.

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The migrant rescue ship that was rejected by the Italian government has been rerouted on its way to Spain because of bad weather.

Macron said he "had not made any comment meant to offend Italy and the Italian people", the statement said.

With xenophobia on the rise across the continent and hard-right parties either in government or riding high in the polls from Italy in the south to Sweden on the north, immigration has become an issue of existential importance for the bloc.

Salvini's League scored its best result in the March national election, partly on pledges to deport hundreds of thousands of migrants and halt the flow of newcomers, and has formed a coalition with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.

"Ships belonging to foreign organisations and flying foreign flags can not dictate Italy's immigration policy", Salvini, who also heads the anti-immigrant League party, said on Wednesday.

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The Aquarius has no showers or sinks for migrants on the ship, and the rescue workers rely on disinfectant spray to use for people's hands before their meals.

"Such statements are undermining relations between Italy and France", Italy's foreign ministry said in a statement Wednesday.

It added that Italy was waiting for French to take action to "heal the situation that has been created". "We need to maintain dialogue", a source close to Macron said as the president visited the western town of Rochefort.

Italian maritime vessels that have picked up Europe-bound migrants in the Mediterranean still are entering the ports; on Wednesday, an Italian coast guard vessel docked in Catania, Sicily with 932 migrants on board.

France's European Affairs minister Nathalie Loiseau on Thursday defended France's record on taking in migrants following criticism of Macron's initial silence on the plight of the Aquarius.

Macron's office said Tuesday that France doesn't want to "start a precedent" that would allow some European countries to breach worldwide laws and rely on other EU member states to take in migrants.

The German chancellor, who is working to pull together a Europe-wide deal on redistributing asylum seekers and find a more lasting solution to illegal migration involving enhanced controls along the European Union's external border, has dismissed the plan as in breach of EU law.

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