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Italy's far-right interior minister Salvini faces probe over stranded migrants

Late on Saturday, authorities begin disembarking people from ship Diciotti, which had been docked for five days in Sicilian port
Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini (AFP/file photo)

Prosecutors in Sicily on Saturday opened an inquiry into Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini for "illegal confinement, illegal arrest and abuse of power," reports said, over his refusal to allow about 150 rescued migrants, mainly from Eritrea, off a coastguard ship.

Later, authorities began disembarking the people from the ship Diciotti, which had been docked for five days in a Sicilian port, ending their ordeal and a bitter stand-off between Rome's anti-establishment government and its European Union partners.

The migrants, mainly from Eritrea, had been stranded in the port of Catania since Monday because the government refused to let them off the boat until other EU states agreed to take some of them in.

Salvini said Albania had offered to accept 20 of the migrants and Ireland 20-25, while the rest would be housed by Italy's Catholic Church "at zero cost" to the Italian taxpayer.

"The church has opened its heart and opened its wallet," Salvini, from the right-wing League party, told supporters at a rally in Pinzolo in northern Italy.

Salvini, who has led a popular crackdown against immigration since the government took office in June, also announced that he had been placed under investigation by the Sicilian prosecutor. "Being investigated for defending the rights of Italians is a disgrace," he said.

 Sick migrants disembark stranded Italian boat as Salvini defies U.N.

The United Nations had called on Saturday for reason from all sides after a meeting of envoys from 10 EU states in Brussels a day earlier failed to break the deadlock.

"Frightened people who may be in need of international protection should not be caught in the maelstrom of politics," the UN refugee agency UNHCR said in a statement.

It appealed to EU member states to "urgently" offer relocation places to the rescued people, in line with an agreement at an EU summit in June, and in the meantime urged Italy to allow "the immediate disembarkation of those on board".

The only help from within the bloc came late on Saturday from Ireland, whose foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said the government had agreed to accept 20 to 25 people, Reuters said.

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"European solidarity is important and this is the right thing to do," the Irish minister said on Twitter. Ireland's announcement followed an offer from non-EU member Albania to take in 20 people.

Prosecutors in Sicily said that they were investigating Salvini in connection with the migrants' plight. The minister earlier brushed aside reports of a broader inquiry into who was responsible, saying late Friday that officials were following orders issued by "the director - that is to say, me".    

Opinion polls suggest that Salvini's stance has boosted his far-right League party's approval rating to about 30 percent - a more than 10 point jump from its showing in March's election.

It is now level with the Five Star Movement with which it has governed Italy since early June.

According to Salvini's own ministry, migrant arrivals are more than 80 percent down from the same period last year, with just over 19,500 arriving up to 23 August, compared with 98,000 in 2017.

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