ROME — Italy’s hard-line interior minister buckled under pressure Saturday and agreed to let 27 unaccompanied minors leave a migrant ship after two weeks at sea, temporarily easing a political standoff that has threatened the viability of the populist government.
In recent days, Premier Giuseppe Conte had written to Interior Minister Matteo Salvini demanding that minors be allowed off the boat. After initially refusing, Salvini wrote back Saturday with a three-page missive of his own saying he would do so but made clear it was Conte’s choice and that it didn’t set a precedent.
Spanish aid group Open Arms said the decision concerned 27 unaccompanied minors who were picked up off Libya earlier this month and were brought with other migrants aboard the ship near the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. The disembarkation was getting underway Saturday, ANSA news agency reported. The fate of more than 100 other migrants remained uncertain.
The standoff laid bare the split between Salvini’s anti-migrant League and the 5-Star Movement, which together govern Italy. Salvini is seeking to end Conte’s populist coalition with a no-confidence vote and early election that Salvini hopes will give him the premiership.
Spanish aid group Open Arms had rescued the migrants in the Mediterranean near Libya two weeks ago, and won a legal battle to enter Italy’s territorial waters despite a ban by Salvini preventing humanitarian aid groups from docking.
The ship has been off Italy’s coast waiting to disembark after Spain and five other European Union nations agreed to take them in.
Open Arms chief Oscar Camps warned Saturday that the group couldn’t guarantee the safety of the migrants anymore, as tensions were rising and fights breaking out.
He warned European leaders that as of Saturday “we cannot be responsible nor guarantee the security of the people on board Open Arms.”
Amid the standoff, the aid group filed a formal complaint with prosecutors in Sicily alleging that both the migrants and the crew were being held hostage. Salvini and other ministers have been investigated in the past for alleged kidnapping stemming from previous standoffs, but no charges have ever been brought.
Associated Press journalist Renata Brito contributed from Madrid.