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Migrant rescue sailboat defies Salvini, docks in Italy

Sailboat is met by strong police presence on quayside and people are not allowed to disembark
NGO Mediterranea's rescue sailboat Alex heading towards Italy's Lampedusa island on Saturday (AFP)

A charity rescue vessel on Saturday brought 41 shipwrecked migrants into port in Lampedusa, the second boat to defy far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini's bid to close Italian ports to them.

NGO Mediterranea's Italian-flagged Alex was met by a strong police presence on the quayside and people were not allowed to disembark after two days with the rescued migrants and asylum-seekers aboard, AFP said.

Salvini said on Twitter: "I'm not authorising people who ignore Italian laws and help human traffickers to disembark," adding that armed forces were ready to intervene, according to Reuters.

Mediterranea tweeted back a request to disembark those rescued, saying it had sailed to "the only possible safe port for landing".

"I'm ashamed of what I'm hearing, but my great joy now is that these people are safe," Mediterranea spokeswoman Alessandra Sciurba said. Sciurba said the charity had no choice but to head to the closest port because of health and hygiene conditions aboard the Alex.

Authorities on Lampedusa last week seized another rescue ship belonging to German aid group Sea-Watch after it forced its way into port with dozens of rescued migrants on board and arrested its captain, Carola Rackete.

An Italian judge this week ordered her freed as she had been acting to save lives, a decision that sparked Salvini's ire but may have encouraged the Alex crew.

In Germany, more than 30,000 people demonstrated in cities around the country in solidarity with Rackete, including 8,000 in Berlin and 4,000 in Hamburg.

"The irresponsibility of European countries obliged me to do what I did," Rackete said in a message to demonstrators, many of whom brandished life vests.

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Salvini accuses NGO rescue vessels of helping smugglers and had insisted Alex sail for the Maltese capital Valetta after 13 "vulnerable" people were on Friday taken to Lampedusa, leaving 41 on board.

Malta also told the Alex to come to Valletta to disembark the migrants, but Mediterranea said the journey would be too arduous.

Photographs showed dozens of migrants and asylum-seekers seeking shelter from the sun under survival blankets on the narrow deck of the 18-metre (59-foot) sailboat.

"In these conditions it is impossible to face 15 hours of sailing," Mediterranea's Sciurba said on Twitter.

Mediterranea consists mainly of left-wing activists, the avowed enemy of Salvini, who has seen his popularity and that of his Lega party rise amid his tough stance against migrant rescue ships.

A poll published in Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper on Saturday said 59 percent of Italians approved of Salvini's closing ports to NGO vessels.

Libya, which has been wracked by chaos since the 2011 uprising that killed leader Muammar Gaddafi, has long been a major transit route for migrants, especially from sub-Saharan Africa, desperate to reach Europe.

On Tuesday night, 53 migrants were killed in an air strike on their detention centre in a Tripoli suburb.