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ROME – Italy threatened Wednesday to close its ports to aid groups rescuing migrants off Libya's coast as it struggles to cope with the highest rate of rescues this year, officials said.
Italy's ambassador to the EU, Maurizio Massari, raised the issue during a meeting with EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, as a half-dozen different ships offloaded some of the more than 10,000 migrants rescued in recent days.
"Italy is right that the situation is untenable along the Central Mediterranean route," Avramopoulos said in a statement, adding that other EU members concurred and that the bloc was ready to increase financial assistance to help Italy manage the flows.
Italy, however, is mulling a ban on non-Italian flagged rescue ships disembarking migrants in Italian ports, though not those participating in the EU's Frontex rescue operation, officials said. That would affect mostly European-based humanitarian rescue ships, which have flooded the waters off Libya's coast in the past year to pick up migrants.
Some of those groups have also been accused by Italian prosecutors of alleged collusion with Libyan-based smugglers.
On Wednesday alone, ships from aid groups MOAS and Doctors Without Borders, as well as Frontex ships, arrived in Italian ports with the more than 10,000 migrants rescued in recent days.
"In the latest years, smugglers often launched a massive number of boats all at the same time, but this year we are witnessing levels never registered before in short periods of time," Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri said in a statement.
Italian coast guard reported that at least 2,400 migrants were due to arrive on Thursday aboard both Frontex and aid group rescue ships in ports in Sicily and mainland Italy.
If Italy goes ahead with its threat, EU Frontex operations would not be up for discussion since they are governed by international law. But Avramopoulos's office said any change in Italian policy regarding aid groups should be discussed ahead of time to give them time to prepare. The commission will help inform the discussions and is ready to provide guidance on disembarkation, it said.
Lorne Cook reported from Brussels.