Migrant rescue ship docks in French port amid Italy rift

TOULON, France (AP) — A maritime rescue ship docked in a southern French port Friday carrying 230 migrants whose fates sparked a diplomatic row between France and Italy, as well as fury from far-right rivals of the French government.

The Ocean Viking disembarked its passengers at the Toulon port, where they were expected to undergo health and security checks at a military base, Var region prefect Evence Richard told reporters,

The passengers from Eritrea, Egypt, Syria, Bangladesh, Pakistan and other nations include 57 children, the youngest of whom is 3 years old, and more than 40 are unaccompanied minors, according to European rescue group SOS Mediterranee, which operates the ship.

Some of the people on the ship were rescued in the Mediterranean Sea three weeks ago, the group said. The French coast guard boarded the Ocean Viking Thursday to help four passengers who needed urgent medical attention ashore.

The ship became the cause of a rift between France and Italy after Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni granted three other private maritime rescue ships permission to dock in Italy but refused the Ocean Viking, claiming that France would take it although the French government had not said that publicly.

France agreed to offer a safe port to the Ocean Viking ship on Thursday. French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said the passengers would ultimately be divided among France and other European Union countries in line with a “solidarity” mechanism approved in June to reduce the pressure on front-line countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain.

Calling Italy’s response “unacceptable” and “incomprehensible,” Darmanin also announced France's withdrawal from the voluntary initiative for sharing asylum-seekers because of the Italian government's behavior. He said France would soon impose border checks with Italy as the diplomatic dispute between otherwise two friendly neighbors deepens.

The arrival of the Ocean Viking reignited a furious political debate on immigration in France. Far-right politicians unleashed a barrage of criticism against President Emmanuel Macron and what they described as his government's open-arms immigration policies.

“Enough is enough,” Jordan Bardella, a far-right European Parliament member and the president of the National Rally, the largest opposition party in the French parliament.

He blasted Macron's government for agreeing to welcome the migrant ship on humanitarian grounds, alleging the move represented the government's “out-of-control” immigration policies.

“Immigration to France is not an unconditional right,” Bardella said. “The French people want a much tougher stand against migration.”

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Surk reported from Nice, France.

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Daniel Cole And Barbara Surk, The Associated Press