ROME (AP) — A Spanish humanitarian boat carrying 147 migrants rescued at sea was anchored in choppy waters Thursday near a southern Italian island while the country's interior and defense ministers sparred over whether it should dock amid Italy's rapidly escalating government crisis.
Spain and five other nations agreed to take the migrants that anti-migrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini was refusing to allow into Italy, offering a solution to the two-week standoff between the charity rescue boat and the populist Italian government.
But the ad hoc offers by fellow European Union nations did little to calm the political turmoil pushing the 14-month-old government to the brink of collapse and toward possible early elections Salvini hopes will give him the premiership.
In an open letter to letter to Salvini posted on Facebook, Premier Giuseppe Conte accused his interior minister of "disloyal cooperation ... that I cannot accept."
Salvini shot back, saying he was stunned that Conte was rebuking him for having an "obsession" about keeping Italian ports closed to humanitarian rescue boats.
"I confess myself of being obsessed" with fighting illegal migration, saying that's what "Italian citizens pay me for."
Two weeks after rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya, the Spanish rescue ship Open Arms entered Italian territorial waters after an Italian court overruled a ban on it by the right-wing Salvini. He responded by renewing his ban against Open Arms entering Italian waters and docking at the island of Lampedusa to disembark its passengers. But Defense Minister Elisabetta Trenta refused to countersign it.
Trenta said she acted "listening to my conscience."
"We can't forget that behind the polemics of these days there are children and youths who suffered violence and every kind of abuse," she said in a statement explaining her refusal.
"Italians need a strong government that doesn't allow timidity when the security and borders of the homeland are at stake," Salvini responded in a tweet.
The duel pitted Salvini, who leads the anti-migrant League party, the populist government's junior partner, and Trenta, who is from the 5-Star Movement, the senior coalition party.
Salvini says Italy has already received hundreds of thousands of migrants rescued at sea in recent years who have applied for asylum. He insists that other EU nations accept more migrants, most of whom are fleeing poverty and aren't eligible for refugee status.
Conte in his letter announced that France, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg said they're willing to take the migrants on Open Arms. "Once again, my counterparts are extending a hand to us," the Italian premier said.
Other standoffs over migrant rescue boats seeking to dock in Italy have been defused with similar deals among EU members to share responsibility.
Salvini's League stokes fears that migrants are to blame for crime and feeds resentment among his voter base against Brussels for its lack of solidarity, since EU rules hold that migrants must apply for asylum in the country where they set foot.
Salvini is openly campaigning to be Italy's next premier even though no new elections have been set. He seized upon the Open Arms stalemate, the latest in a series of standoffs, to blame Italy's migrant plight on the previous center-left governments led by the Democratic Party (PD), now Parliament's biggest opposition force.
"It's thanks to this presumed concept of 'humanity' that in years of the PD governments that Italy became the refugee camp of Europe," Salvini said on Facebook.
Maneuvering this week among Italy's political leaders has raised the possibility of the 5-Stars forging an alliance with the Democrats to thwart Salvini's quest for the premiership.
Salvini's League last week lodged a no-confidence vote against the government, precipitating the country's political crisis. Conte, who will address the Senate on Tuesday, would be forced to resign if the non-confidence motion succeeds.
If any deal between the 5-Stars and the Democrats lines up enough support in Parliament for an alternative ruling coalition, Italy's president could hold off on dissolving Parliament and avoid a new election this fall.
Italian RAI state radio said two navy ships, which report to Trenta's ministry, were nearby to evacuate the children, a day after Conte asked Salvini to allow them to leave the ship.
Even as the fighting over Open Arms played out, another migrant rescue boat drama loomed.
The Ocean Viking, a Norwegian ship operated by Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee, was awaiting word of where it can safely disembark 356 migrants it rescued from traffickers' unseaworthy boats. So far it has appealed to Italy and Malta in vain.
A UNICEF regional official urged immediate action to at least let the minors on the rescue boats land.
"It is unconscionable that once again politics have been prioritized over saving the lives of children who are stranded on the Mediterranean Sea," Afshan Khan said, noting that the two ships had 130 children and "only 11 of the 103 children aboard the Viking Ocean are accompanied by a parent or guardian."
Aritz Parra in Madrid and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.
Frances D'Emilio is on twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio