UPDATED: Migrant ships docks in France as row with Italy escalates

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PARIS/ROME, Nov 11 (Reuters) – A charity-run ship carrying around 230 migrants rescued at sea docked at a French port on Friday after being turned away by Italy, as a war of words over their fate between the two countries intensified.

The French government agreed on Thursday to take the Ocean Viking NGO ship in, while sharply criticising the government in Rome and saying it would suspend plans to take in 3,000 migrants who had already arrived in Italy.

The ship docked at a military port in Toulon with migrants, including dozens of children, saved from the Mediterranean in October.

With immigration a sensitive issue in both countries, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on Thursday called the right-wing Italian government’s ban on the charity vessel – which had been stuck off Sicily for days – “reprehensible” and “selfish”.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on Friday described Paris’s reaction as “incomprehensible and unjustified”, adding that Italy could not be the only destination for migrants from Africa.

The Ocean Viking rescue ship, operated by French maritime-humanitarian organization SOS Mediterranee, enters the harbor in Toulon, France, 11 November 2022. SOS Mediterranee on 10 November announced receiving the green light by French authorities to allow the over 230 migrants onboard to disembark in Toulon. The vessel spent weeks at sea after rescuing migrants during several operations throughout October. EPA-EFE/GUILLAUME HORCAJUELO

Accused by France’s far-right opposition of being soft on immigration, President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist government is eager to keep the ship’s arrival from fuelling further criticism at home.

The head the French government service in charge of foreigners, Eric Jalon, said nine EU states had already agreed to take in two-thirds of the Ocean Viking migrants and that talks were also under way with other countries.

Local Var region prefect Evence Richard said that nearly 600 public workers had been mobilised for the arrival of the migrants, who would be sent to a nearby holding site where they would be given medical care and their asylum requests examined.

Jalon said migrants who were not deemed eligible to stay in France or elsewhere in the EU would be returned to their country of origin.

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