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Diplomatic tensions flare between Italy and France over migrants stand-off

Ships carrying 629 migrants are heading to Spain after they were refused entry to Italy.

Italy has summoned the French ambassador for consultations after France accused the new populist Italian government of cynical behaviour by refusing entry to a migrant ship.

As the stand-off begins to have continent-wide repercussions, Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini is set to brief parliament on the situation as the Aquarius and its 629 passengers continue a long westward voyage to Spain.

Italy has defended its decision to refuse the Aquarius entry, saying it has never abandoned the ship operated by the aid group SOS Mediterranee and is escorting it to Valencia.

Spain offered the Aquarius safe harbour after Italy and Malta both refused.

On Wednesday, an Italian coastguard vessel docked in Catania, Sicily, with more than 900 migrants aboard in a sign that Italy, under the populist 5-Star Movement and anti-migrant League party, is still accepting some migrants, but is forcing other countries to share the burden.

The Diciotti was also carrying the corpses of two people who died during the voyage, a woman and a teenage boy.

Thirteen of the passengers disembarking in Catania are pregnant and 208 are minors. The passengers hail from Eritrea, Sudan, Mali, Ivory Coast and Guinea.

During the voyage to Sicily, four pregnant women and a man suffering from fever were evacuated urgently and taken to hospitals.

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Matteo Salvini is to brief parliament (Riccardo Antimiani/Ansa/AP)

Mr Salvini has accused European aid groups of essentially operating taxi services for Libya-based human traffickers, and has said Italy will refuse them entry.

French President Emmanuel Macron criticised what he called Italy’s cynicism and irresponsibility in turning away the Aquarius, which is operated by SOS Mediterranee and the French-founded Doctors Without Borders.

Mr Macron’s office said France does not want to “start a precedent” that would allow some European countries to breach international laws and rely on other EU member states to take in migrants.

Mr Salvini responded that France has turned away thousands of migrants at Italy’s northern border.

He accused France of having caused the instability in Libya that has allowed smuggling networks to thrive, by spearheading the 2011 Nato-led military campaign that led to the downfall of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

“Italy cannot accept hypocritical lessons about migration from countries that have always preferred to look away,” said a statement from the office of premier Giuseppe Conte.

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