By Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's justice minister said on Thursday it was "a lie" to paint humanitarian ships saving migrants in the Mediterranean as criminals, responding to a Sicilian prosecutor who has repeatedly suggested some are colluding with Libyan smugglers.
Carmelo Zuccaro, the chief prosecutor of the Sicilian port city of Catania, has said he has evidence of phone calls between people smugglers and aid groups, but he has not opened a criminal investigation or presented his evidence.
The Catania court opened a fact-finding probe in February, saying traffickers may be funding non-governmental organizations involved in rescuing migrants who attempt the dangerous crossing from North Africa to Europe.
NGOs have forcefully denied any wrongdoing and said their only objective is to save lives.
"I hope the Catania prosecutor's office will speak through its investigations because I think it's the best way to clarify things," Justice Minister Andrea Orlando said in a live-streamed interview on la Repubblica newspaper's Web site.
"If the prosecutor has evidence, which I think he will present in coming days, then we can consider it. In general, it's not right to make the story of the NGOs working in the Mediterranean as a tale of collusion with people smugglers because it's a lie."
Zuccaro, contacted through his secretary and by email, did not respond to a request for comment. A parliamentary probe opened to look into the matter is due to hear testimony from Zuccaro next week.
The sea route from Libya to Italy is the main passage for migrants seeking to reach Europe, with almost 37,000 arrivals already this year, an increase of more than 36 percent on the same period last year. More than 1,000 have died at sea since the start of 2017.
Since Italy abandoned a search-and-rescue operation in 2014, humanitarian groups have increasingly taken to the sea to rescue migrants who people smugglers pack onto unsafe and overcrowded boats.
But with an Italian general election looming before the summer of 2018, immigration has become a hot-button issue. The 5-Star Movement, which polls say is now the country's biggest party, said last week NGOs were offering a "taxi" service to migrants.
Earlier on Wednesday, during his third appearance on national television in two days, Zuccaro told RAI state television NGOs were attempting to destabilize the nation's economy by ferrying migrants to Italy.
"In my opinion some NGOs could be financed by traffickers and I know there has been direct contact," he said. "Smuggling brings in more money than drugs... NGOs have different objectives: to destabilize the Italian economy to their own advantage."
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)