ROME — An investigation of humanitarian groups operating migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean has turned up evidence of contacts between some NGOs and Libyan-based human smugglers, a prosecutor based in Sicily said in comments published Sunday.
Anti-migrant politicians immediately demanded to know who finances rescue ships run by NGOs.
Catania Chief Prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro was quoted as saying in an interview with La Stampa newspaper that his office's probe has revealed "evidence that there are direct contacts between some NGOs and human traffickers in Libya."
Several nongovernmental organizations have operated rescue boats in the Mediterranean just outside Libya's territorial waters.
Humanitarian advocates said that if it weren't for them, countless more migrants would perish at sea.
"Now and for some time already, the NGOs are saving lives in the sea," Amnesty International official Gianni Rufini told Italian news agency ANSA. He challenged those suspecting deals between NGOs and smugglers to produce proof.
Under maritime rules involving distressed boats, Italy's coast guard, which co-ordinates operations in the search-and-rescue zone between Sicily and Libya's territorial waters, frequently calls on private vessels near foundering dinghies or fishing boats crowded with migrants. In the past, nearby cargo ships were called to help. But increasingly an expanding number of NGO vessels are plucking migrants to safety.
Zuccaro didn't specify how the evidence was obtained.
"We don't know if and how to utilize this information in the judicial process, but we're certain enough of what we're saying: (there are) telephone calls from Libya to some NGOs" and other evidence, the prosecutor was quoted as saying.
Compared to the same period in 2016, the number of migrants rescued at sea and brought to Italy so far this year has jumped about 44 per cent , to about 36,000.
Zuccaro predicted as many as 250,000 migrants might be rescued at sea this year and taken to Italian ports, if the pace continues.
Populist politicians raised an outcry about what critics have dubbed NGO "taxi services" for migrants.
NGOs are suspected of being "in cahoots with human traffickers," said Luigi Di Maio, a top leader of the populist 5-Star Movement. "We want light shed on this, to know who finances" the NGOs.
Echoing politicians from the far-right Northern League, Di Maio cited fears there might be "criminals" among the migrants.
Zuccaro distinguished between a rash of newcomer groups established for the purpose of rescuing migrants at sea and long-established humanitarian organizations.
"For the suspect ones, we must understand what they do; for the good ones, instead one must ask if it's right and normal that European governments leave the task of deciding how and where to intervene in the Mediterranean to them."
The European border agency Frontex also has military vessels from several countries that help rescue migrants.
Last week, Italian Premier Paolo Gentiloni praised NGOs for saving migrant lives, but said prosecutors were right to investigate any possible contacts between NGO groups and the Libyan-based smugglers.
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Frances D'Emilio, The Associated Press