By Angelo Amante and Alvise Armellini
ROME (Reuters) -A row escalated on Friday over who should take care of migrants rescued by charity groups off the Italian coast, with Italy insisting that countries whose flag was flown by the boats should bear some of the responsibility and Norway disagreeing.
Three charity vessels holding almost 1,000 migrants have been at sea off Italy for more than a week waiting for permission from the new rightist government in Rome to dock. All their requests have so far been rejected, they say. Two are flying the Norwegian flag and one is flying the German flag.
Italy last week sent letters to the embassies of Germany and Norway, saying ships by non-governmental organizations flying their flags were not following European security rules and were undermining the fight against illegal immigration.
But Norway replied that it could not intervene.
"Norway has no responsibility under human rights conventions or the law of the sea for persons taken on board private Norwegian-flagged vessels in the Mediterranean," Ambassador Johan Vibe said in an emailed statement to Reuters on Friday.
The German embassy on Wednesday urged Italy to provide help swiftly, saying the NGO ships made an important contribution to saving lives at sea.
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi told a news conference on Friday that the German-flagged Humanity 1 with 179 people aboard, including more than 100 unaccompanied minors, was heading towards the Sicilian city of Catania.
He said the boat would be allowed to stop close to the port and Italy would take charge of those facing health emergencies and the minors. But the boat and the rest of those onboard would then be sent out of territorial waters.
"We won't neglect humanitarian obligations... but we want to stick to the point regarding duties of flag states," Piantedosi said.
Petra Krischok, a press officer at the German NGO who is aboard the vessel, said the migrants were sleeping on the deck and could soon face rough seas after days of good weather.
More than a quarter of the group had been sick with flu-like symptoms, she said in emailed comments.
The two vessels flying Norwegian flags have more than 800 people onboard and are sailing off Sicily.
Norway told Italy "the primary responsibility for coordinating the work to ensure a safe port for those in distress at sea lies with the state responsible for the search and rescue area where such assistance has been rendered".
"Neighbouring coastal states also have a responsibility in such matters," the ambassador's statement added.
On Thursday, charity SOS Mediterranee, which operates one of the two boats, the Ocean Viking, said it had asked Greece, Spain and France to help as Italy and Malta had not responded to its docking requests.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told RMC-BFMTV that international law said Italy should take in the migrants, but added that Paris and Berlin were ready to offer assistance.
"We have told our Italian friends, together with our German friends, that we are ready to take in, as we have done in previous cases, some of the women and children so that Italy is not alone in receiving them," he said.
Migrant numbers have surged in Italy over the last week, with more than 6,200 people arriving since Oct. 27, compared to 1,400 in the same period in 2021, government data shows.
(Reporting by Alvise Armellini, Angelo Amante and Crispian Balmer; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Rosalba O'Brien)