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Italy blocks ship of migrants fleeing Libya

March 15, 2011

By Guy Dinmore and Eleonora de Sabata in Rome, Published: March 15 2011

A Moroccan ferry carrying 1,800 people fleeing Libya was reported to be standing off Sicily on Tuesday after the Italian authorities denied it permission to enter port for refuelling.

Italy’s Ansa news agency reported that the Mistral Express was carrying 1,715 Moroccans, 39 Libyans, 35 Algerians, 26 Egyptians and other Africans. It was variously reported to have sailed from Tripoli and/or Misurata, scene of recent fighting between government and rebel forces, and had been chartered either by the Moroccan government or those on board who had been working in Libya.

Roberto Maroni, Italy’s interior minister, on Monday ordered that the ship be kept out of Italian waters and refused permission to refuel in the Sicilian port of Augusta on the grounds that its intentions and identities of its passengers were unclear. Local media reported it might be refuelled at sea to continue its journey to Morocco.

The Italian coastguard said the Mistral Express was 16 miles off Augusta on Tuesday. It was believed to be the first ship from Libya to try to reach Italy since the conflict erupted last month.

Italy’s centre-right coalition government, which includes Mr Maroni’s hardline Northern League party, wants to prevent an influx of north African migrants. The blocking of the Mistral was front-page news on the Northern League’s daily Padania on Tuesday.

Nonetheless, several thousand people, mostly Tunisians, have made it to the small Italian island of Lampedusa in recent weeks. Most want to move on to France. More than 20 small boats have reached Lampedusa since Monday, carrying about 1,600 migrants, according to United Nations officials.

Italian media, quoting survivors, reported that about 40 people were feared drowned when a boat sank on Sunday night after leaving the Tunisian port of Zarzi.

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