ROME • Italy doubled down yesterday on its new tough stance against migrants, calling for a German non-governmental organisation's (NGO) rescue boat to be impounded and its crew arrested as the European Union prepares for a tense weekend mini-summit on the issue dividing the bloc.
Just three weeks in power, Italy's new populist government is digging its heels in on campaign promises to stop the influx of migrants, threatening to seize rescue ships or barring them from its ports.
This time, it has set its sights on the German NGO, Mission Lifeline.
"The illegal boat Lifeline is now in Maltese waters with its cargo of 239 migrants. For the safety of its crew and the passengers, we've asked Malta to open its ports," Interior Minister Matteo Salvini wrote on Twitter.
"Clearly, the boat should immediately be impounded and its crew arrested," said Mr Salvini, who is also Italy's Deputy Prime Minister.
A source close to the Maltese government said Valletta had not yet received any official request from Rome, nor had Lifeline itself sought any permission to land.
Mr Salvini has repeatedly accused NGOs of being complicit with human smugglers operating in Libya.
"Italian ports are no longer at the disposal of traffickers. Open the Maltese ports! Open the French ports," he said yesterday, ahead of a second round of local elections in Siena tomorrow.
On Thursday, Italian Infrastructure Minister Danilo Toninelli had said that two of Mission Lifeline's ships - the Lifeline and the Seefuchs - would be "seized by the Italian government and directed into our ports" for an investigation to be launched into their legal status.
It would not be the first time that Italy has seized an NGO ship.
In March, a boat operated by Spanish aid group Open Arms was impounded after NGO workers refused to hand over migrants - who were saved during a rescue mission off the Libyan coast - to the Libyan coast guard, instead delivering them to the Italian island of Sicily.
Last year, the Iuventa, chartered by German NGO Jugend Rettet, was similarly seized.
The far-right Mr Salvini, who heads the anti-immigration League party, has quickly become the public face of Rome's new confrontational and unbending stance.
It was he who barred the French NGO-run Aquarius rescue ship, carrying about 630 migrants, from docking in Italy, triggering an EU-wide row.
In a Facebook post on Thursday, he said: "Foreign NGO boats will never touch Italian soil again."
Yesterday, he insisted that "Italy is no longer a country that can be put up for sale, or occupied, a little bit by the French, a little bit by the Germans".
Just two days ahead of tomorrow's Brussels meeting, where the migration issue will take centre stage, Mr Salvini vowed to make Brussels "face the music".
"Never was Italy so central to the discussions," he said, noting that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had spoken personally via telephone to Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Thursday.
Rome had weighed boycotting the talks, but finally agreed to attend after being placated by Dr Merkel.
Speaking on a visit to Lebanon, she said "we know that no solution will be reached on Thursday and Friday at the level of the 28 member states... on the overall issue of migration".
Instead, she said, "bilateral, trilateral and multilateral" deals must be reached to tackle the issue - a message echoed almost word for word by her spokesman Ulrike Demmer at a Berlin press conference.