Doctors Without Borders said Saturday it is temporarily suspending the activity of its rescue ship due to alleged threats from Libya's coast guard, which has become more aggressive in patrolling the coasts where human traffickers launch boats crowded with migrants desperate to reach Europe.
The humanitarian group said the rescue coordination center operated by Italy's coast guard had informed it on Friday that the Libyan threats pose a security risk. The group added that Libyan authorities declared their own rescue area, extending into international waters, the same day.
Doctors Without Borders says its medical crew will keep working from a ship operated by another aid group while its own vessel, Prudence, is not involved in migrant rescues.
The Italian government agreed last month to dispatch a naval mission to assist the Libyan coast guard with anti-smuggler patrols. Hundreds of thousands of rescued asylum-seekers, many of them fleeing poverty in Africa, have been brought to safety in Italian ports in recent years.
The government also has pressured rescue groups to sign on to rules that would forbid them from entering Libyan waters to save migrants without specific authorization and require them to agree that armed Italian judicial authorities may board their ships.
Italy is requiring groups operating rescue ships to subscribe to the rules else or risk not being allowed to dock in Italian ports. Doctors Without Borders has refused to endorse the rules, while some other humanitarian groups have given their approval.
Critics of the new policies say they could put lives at risk by delaying rescues in Libyan waters. They also contend that if the Libyan coast guard blocks smugglers' boats, migrants will be returned to inhumane conditions, including beatings and forced labor, in Libyan detention centers.
"If humanitarian ships are pushed out of the Mediterranean, there will be fewer ships ready to aid persons before they drown," Doctors Without Borders Italy President Loris De Filippi said in a statement. "And whoever doesn't drown will be intercepted and brought back to Libya, which we know to be a place of absent legality, arbitrary detention and extreme violence."
A Spanish humanitarian group, Proactiva Open Arms, said the Libyan coast guard ordered its rescue ship to move north and fired warning shots last week when the vessel was involved in search-and-rescue work outside of Libyan territory.
Humanitarian groups have had ships monitoring the Mediterranean Sea outside of Libya's territorial waters to help rescue migrants from smugglers' boats in distress. The Italian coast guard coordinates the rescues, including those conducted by naval vessels from other European countries.
Anti-migrant sentiment has been rising in Italy, where newcomers from Africa and the Middle East are being blamed for crimes.
Italian news agency ANSA reported Saturday that Italian authorities have issued an arrest warrant for a Somali man who had applied for asylum in Sicily. The asylum-seeker was identified as one of some 50 Somalis wanted for the 2011 hijacking of an Italian oil tanker off the coast of Somalia.
ANSA said the man's fingerprints matched ones taken from the hijacked tanker. The ship's 22-person crew was held for ransom for several months. ANSA, citing court documents, said $11.5 million was paid for the ship's release.