By Steve Scherer
Italian far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on Wednesday resisted increasing pressure to allow 177 migrants who have been held on a coast guard ship in a Sicilian port for two days to disembark.
A public backlash against the seaborne newcomers helped put Salvini and his anti-immigration League party into office in June, alongside the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.
The coast guard's Diciotti ship is docked in the port of Catania, but Salvini has said he will not let the migrants - including 28 minors - come ashore until other European countries agree to take them in. They were rescued from an overcrowded boat a week ago.
In response to criticism, Salvini posted a picture of about 20 protesters holding banners, including one that read, "Let's stay human", at the Catania port.
"The 'very numerous' protesters who still want immigrants have arrived in Catania... Should I send them a kiss?" he wrote on Twitter, followed by an emoticon blowing a kiss.
Salvini also addressed a coast guard official who had told Corriere della Sera newspaper that the situation was "embarrassing". Salvini replied on Twitter that after over 650,000 arrivals from sea since 2014, "I'm the embarrassing one?"
Salvini has repeatedly said Italy "will no longer be Europe's refugee camp", calling on European partners to share the burden. But his hardline position appeared to be irritating his 5-Star ally on Wednesday.
Roberto Fico, the 5-Star speaker of the lower house, said on Twitter the migrants "must be able to disembark. They cannot be held on board any longer".
Last month President Sergio Mattarella made a rare intervention in Italian politics to end a simmering dispute between the two governing parties over whether to let the Diciotti disembark 67 migrants in western Sicily.
ITALY AGAINST MALTA
With the help of the European Commission, Malta and Italy have taken in ships carrying migrants after European partners offered to accept a quota of the new arrivals themselves.
"We call on everyone to contribute to a swift resolution so that the people onboard the (Diciotti) vessel may safely disembark," a European Commission spokeswoman said on Wednesday.
But on Tuesday, Salvini said a previous agreement to distribute migrants from a ship that docked in Italy in July had not worked. Only France had taken some of them, while all the other countries who offered to, including Malta, had not.
"The Italian authorities have not provided any tangible procedure for Malta to follow," the Maltese government said in a statement on Wednesday.
Italy has also failed to meet its quota from a humanitarian boat that docked in Malta in June "despite the efforts of the Maltese authorities to complete this process with the Italian authorities," the statement said.
Migrant flows across the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy - one of the main routes to Europe - have tapered off as Libyan factions have cracked down on people smugglers, and as the EU has bolstered its support for the Libyan coast guard.
But people are still dying at sea and summer is peak season for migrants attempting the crossing, often in packed, unseaworthy boats.
On Wednesday, the Maltese military picked up two corpses and 100 migrants on board a boat that was in imminent danger of sinking, a statement said.
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Basczynska in BRUSSELS and Chris Scicluna in VALLETTA; Editing by Mark Heinrich)