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The Latest: Italian minister cancels trip to France

The Latest: Italian minister cancels trip to France
The Associated Press

CATANIA, Sicily (AP) — The Latest on the flow of migrants into Europe (all times local):

3:10 p.m.

Italy’s finance minister has canceled a planned meeting in Paris with his French counterpart after the two countries clashed over Italy’s decision to refuse entry to a migrant rescue ship.

The office of Finance Minister Giovanni Tria confirmed Wednesday’s meeting with Bruno Le Maire had been scrapped. Le Maire’s office confirmed the cancellation. No reason was given by either office.

But earlier, Italy’s foreign ministry warned that relations had been compromised by France’s public criticism that Italy’s decision to refuse entry to the migrant ship Aquarius had been “cynical” and irresponsible.

Italy summoned the French ambassador to protest and demanded an official apology.

Italy has defended its decision to refuse the Aquarius and its 600 passengers entry. Spain has offered to take it in and the ship is currently on the dayslong voyage to Valencia.

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2:15 p.m.

The U.N. refugee agency chief says a bitter dispute over which European country should take in a rescue boat carrying hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean is “profoundly shameful” for the European Union.

Filippo Grandi railed against the dispute involving France, Italy, Malta and Spain over the Aquarius, which is carrying some 629 migrants who left from Libya.

Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Grandi said the EU can expect more such incidents in coming weeks as long as it remains divided on its policies toward migrants and refugees.

Spain offered to take in the Aquarius after Italy and Malta refused to do so. French President Emmanuel Macron criticized the Italian government’s refusal.

Grandi said closing ports wrongly threatens “rescue at sea” — a requirement under international law — but said Italy’s reasoning was “something that we need to listen to.”

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2 p.m.

France’s foreign ministry spokeswoman says France is fully aware of the burden weighing on Italy amid the migrant crisis, and of the efforts made by the country.

Agnes von der Muhll says “none of the comments by French authorities have questioned this, nor the need for a close coordination between Europeans”, in a written statement Wednesday.

She wouldn’t comment any further on the decision of Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi to summon the French ambassador on Wednesday following comments by the French president on Italy’s refusal to allow a ship carrying rescued migrants to dock.

French President Emmanuel Macron is to meet with new Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte on Friday in Paris.

Migrant-related issues will be at the heart of the discussions and France hopes to maintain a “close dialogue” with its neighbor, the statement says.

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1:35 p.m.

The leader of Austria and Germany’s conservative interior minister say their countries will cooperate with Italy to tackle the problem of illegal migration.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said an “axis of the willing” between Rome, Vienna and Berlin makes sense because the countries form one of the main travel routes into Europe for migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean.

Kurz told reporters in Berlin that a growing number of European governments agree on the need to curb uncontrolled migration and crack down on people trafficking.

Horst Seehofer, Germany’s interior minister, said he spoke Tuesday to his Italian counterpart, adding that the three countries would press ahead on the issue.

Seehofer has taken a tough line on immigration that’s put him at odds with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

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1:15 p.m.

Italy’s foreign ministry says French criticism of its handling of the migrant ship Aquarius is “unacceptable,” and is compromising their diplomatic relations.

The ministry issued a statement after Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi summoned the French ambassador to complain on Wednesday. The French charge d’affairs, Claire Anne Raulin, represented France as the ambassador was out of Rome.

In the statement, Italy said France could have made its views privately, and considered the public complaints by President Emmanuel Macron “unacceptable” and “unjustified.” Macron had said Italy had been cynical and irresponsible for having denied entry to the Aquarius, a rescue vessel with more than 600 migrants onboard.

The ministry said: “Such declarations are compromising relations between Italy and France.” It added that Italy was waiting for French to take action to “heal the situation that has been created.”

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11:40 a.m.

Italy is challenging France to take in the migrants it promised to under an EU agreement, and has accused France of turning back some 10,000 migrants at Italy’s northern border.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini blasted the French critique of its handling of the Aquarius migrant ship standoff during a speech to Parliament on Wednesday. Salvini demanded an apology after French President Emmanuel Macron accused Italy of cynical, irresponsible behavior by refusing to let the Aquarius dock in an Italian port.

Salvini said France had committed to accepting 9,816 migrants under a 2015 EU redistribution scheme to relieve frontline countries of the pressure of asylum-seekers. The scheme has never gotten off the ground.

Salvini said in three years, France has accepted only 640 people. “So I ask President Macron to pass from words to action and tomorrow morning welcome the 9,816 France promised to welcome as a sign of concrete generosity and not just words.”

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10:45 a.m.

The co-founder of the SOS Mediterranee charity says three ships carrying 629 migrants are expected to arrive around Saturday night at the Spanish port of Valencia, depending on weather conditions.

Sophie Beau said Wednesday in a news conference in Marseille, France, “it’s a relief for everyone, our teams and of course above all for the survivors to know that they are finally allowed to head to a safe port in Europe.”

Beau said while the rescue ship the association operates, the Aquarius, is travelling the 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) to Spain, new victims “are dying under our eyes.”

She called on European countries to set up a fleet to save human lives in the Mediterranean Sea.

Spain offered to welcome migrants aboard the Aquarius rescue ship after Italy and Malta refused to take them in.

Italy sent two ships operated by the Italian navy and coast guard to take on some of the migrant passengers and escort the ship on the voyage.

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10:40 a.m.

Italy’s coast guard says its ship Diciotti has brought 932 migrants to shore in Catania, Sicily, as a diplomatic standoff continues over Italy’s refusal to let another rescue ship dock.

The Diciotti was also carrying the corpses of two people who died during their voyage, a woman and a teenage boy.

Thirteen of the passengers disembarking in Catania are pregnant and 208 are minors. The passengers hailed from Eritrea, Sudan, Mali, Ivory Coast and Guinea.

During the voyage to Sicily, four pregnant women and a man suffering from fever were evacuated urgently and taken to hospitals.

The Aquarius migrant ship operated by SOS Mediterranee has been refused entry to Italian ports. It is now heading to Spain.

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9:25 a.m.

Italy has summoned the French ambassador for consultations after French President Emmanuel Macron criticized what he called Italy’s cynicism and irresponsibility in turning away a migrant rescue ship with more than 600 people aboard.

A statement from the foreign ministry said the ambassador had been summoned Wednesday morning “following the statements given in Paris yesterday about the Aquarius.”

Macron’s office said Tuesday that France doesn’t want to “start a precedent” that would allow some European countries to breach international laws and rely on other EU member states to take in migrants.

Spain has agreed to accept the Aquarius in its port in Valencia.

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9:15 a.m.

An Italian coast guard vessel has docked in Sicily with more than 900 migrants aboard, evidence that Italy’s new anti-migrant government is still taking in some asylum-seekers but is forcing the rest of Europe to accept others.

Crew aboard the Diciotti began disembarking passengers in Catania’s port early Wednesday. At the same time, the Aquarius vessel of the aid group SOS Mediterranee continued its dayslong westward voyage to Spain, where it was rerouted after Italy and Malta refused it entry.

The fates of the two ships are evidence of the policy shift by Italy’s new populist government: refuse entry to rescue ships of European-flagged aid groups, but allow Italian maritime vessels in its ports.

The shift has heightened tensions in Europe, with France accusing Italy of “cynical” and irresponsible behavior.

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