Stand-off at port as Italy accepts only some rescued migrants

Italy on Sunday took in families with babies and vulnerable migrants rescued in the Mediterranean as charities slammed Rome's decision to order the others back into international waters.

As humanitarian vessels waited in the port of Catania to disembark those saved, a migrants rescue hotline said some 500 others had run into difficulty on the perilous Mediterranean crossing.

A father carrying a baby in a purple beanie was among the first to get off Geo Barents, a ship run by medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF). He kissed and hugged her tightly as they came down the gangplank.

He was one of the lucky ones.

Rome allowed 144 people including minors and the sick off the German-flagged Humanity 1 earlier Sunday, but 35 adult male migrants were refused permission to set foot on Italian soil, charity SOS Humanity said.

The ship was then "ordered to leave the port of Catania", it said in a statement.

"The captain of the Humanity 1, who is legally responsible for the safety of all people on board, has refused," it said.

The charity said Italian authorities had decided after a "brief medical examination" that the 35 adults were "healthy", but said there was "no translator present to assess their mental and physical condition, nor was there a psychological evaluation".

"Furthermore, the 35 survivors have the right to apply for asylum, and to a formal asylum procedure, which can only be carried out on land".

- 'Playing with lives' -

Those refused permission to leave the Humanity 1 were "extremely depressed", SOS Humanity's press officer Petra Krischok told AFP.

MSF said the "selective and partial disembarkation" was illegal and accused politicians of "playing with (migrants') lives".

The Humanity 1 and Geo Barents were two of four ships that had requested a safe port. The Ocean Viking and Rise Above are still off Sicily.

As the vessels waited, Alarm Phone, a group running a hotline for migrants needing rescue, said it had been alerted to "a large boat carrying about 500 people in distress" in the Mediterranean.

Italy's new far-right government has vowed to crack down on boat migrants attempting the perilous crossing from North Africa to Europe.

Over 87,000 people have landed in Italy so far this year, according to the interior ministry -- though only 14 percent of those were rescued at sea and brought to safety by charity vessels.

Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi earlier said those who do not "qualify" would have to "leave territorial waters".

Sources close to Transport Minister Matteo Salvini, who controls the ports, said they would be "provided with the assistance necessary" to do so.

The leader of the main opposition party, Democratic Party chief Enrico Letta, accused the government on Twitter of breaking international law.

Piantedosi should explain his actions to parliament, the party said.

Member of parliament Aboubakar Soumahoro, present as those chosen from the Humanity 1 were disembarked, slammed the "selection of shipwrecked migrants", saying lawyers were already at work on challenging the decision.

- 'Europe's responsibility' -

Piantedosi said Saturday those migrants not allowed into Italy would have to be "taken care of by the flag state" -- a reference to the national flags under which the vessels sail.

The Humanity 1 and Mission Lifeline charity's Rise Above sail under the German flag.

The Geo Barents and SOS Mediterranee's Ocean Viking are registered in Norway.

The Norwegian foreign ministry said Thursday it bore "no responsibility" for those rescued by private Norwegian-flagged ships in the Mediterranean.

Germany insisted in a diplomatic "note" to Italy that the charities were "making an important contribution to saving human lives" and asked Rome "to help them as soon as possible".

Pope Francis weighed in Sunday, saying that Italy "can do nothing without Europe's agreement" and telling journalists that as far as migrant arrivals were concerned, "it is Europe's responsibility".

ide/ach