BARCELONA, Spain -- Spain has reluctantly allowed humanitarian aid vessels to depart for the Greek islands where they want to deliver aid supplies to migrant camps, Spanish aid groups said Wednesday. But the groups face hefty fines if their boats venture without permission into official search and rescue areas in the Central Mediterranean.
The Spanish government had blocked the rescue boats from sailing, fearing they would anger Mediterranean countries like Italy if they roam around the ocean looking for and picking up migrants.
Italy and Malta have argued that they cannot open their ports to humanitarian rescue ships because their activities off the coast of lawless Libya have encouraged human traffickers.
After nearly four months of legal back and forth, the Aita Mari received the green light to sail to the Aegean Sea on Tuesday.
Daniel Rivas, a spokesman for the Humanitarian Rescue Service group, said the ship carries medical and sanitary supplies to the camps on the islands of Lesbos and Chios.
A separate boat, Proactivas Open Arms, will depart from Barcelona later this week with blankets and other supplies, the groups founder Oscar Camps said Wednesday.
Both have been told to stay away from off-coast search and rescue zones unless authorities ask them to participate in a specific operation to aid people in distress at sea.
They face fines from 300,000 to 900,000 euros (340,000 to one million dollars) if they break those conditions.
Camps said his group would still conduct rescues if they find people in need.
Its our legal obligation to rescue people in the sea, if we come across them, we will do it, he told Catalan television TV3.
A total of 407 people have died so far this year while crossing the Mediterranean to Europe this year, according to the IOM, the United Nations migration body.