Four-country migrant ship standoff escalates as Italy demands apology from France

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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. Rome says the rescue vessel's passengers never were in danger and argues that other European countries must share the work of welcoming would-be asylum-seekers.

The Aquarius will now dock in Valencia, which is 800 miles from where the ship had been stranded.

The saga began on Monday when Italy refused to let the Aquarius dock and disembark passengers in Italy, insisting Malta should do so.

In his speech, Salvini shot back and said France had turned back 10,249 migrants at Italy's northern border since January "including women, children and disabled people".

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French President Emmanuel Macron had blasted what he called Italy's cynicism and irresponsibility in turning away the Aquarius, which is operated by the humanitarian group SOS Mediterranee and the French-founded Doctors Without Borders.

"We believe an axis of the willing is needed to fight illegal migration".

Salvini has accused charities that rescue migrants of working with human traffickers but said Italy would not stop rescuing migrant boats itself. It was carrying 629 migrants and is now heading to Spain, which offered safe harbour, escorted by two Italian ships.

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

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An Italian coast guard ship carrying more than 900 Libyan migrants docked in Sicily Wednesday, just barely after the Rome government rejected entry to a boatload of others.

Macron told ministers in a cabinet meeting on Tuesday the Italian government had acted cynically and irresponsibly in its refusal to welcome the Aquarius, according to French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux.

"Italy can not accept hypocritical lessons about migration from countries that have always preferred to look away", said a statement from the office of Premier Giuseppe Conte. But the French economy ministry later said the ministers had "agreed that Mr Tria will come to Paris in the coming days".

Italy and Malta's actions flout global maritime norms.

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The case touched on one of the main faultlines in European politics - how to share the responsibility of handling migrants trying to get into the bloc from war zones and poor countries, largely across Africa and the Middle East. In practice, the policy has placed a heavy burden on Italy and Greece, where hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers have arrived in recent years. Some countries feel justified in stopping migrants from entering when they should have registered elsewhere.

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