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New rescue ship Ocean Viking leaves France for first mission off Libya

NGO SOS Mediterranee halted missions with its ship Aquarius last December after it was blocked by some EU governments
Members of crew prepare French NGOs SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders' new ship, Ocean Viking, on Sunday in Marseille, France (AFP)

Humanitarian group SOS Mediterranee on Sunday dispatched its new rescue ship Ocean Viking from the French port of Marseille on its first mission to save migrants off the coast of Libya.

The group had halted missions with its ship Aquarius last December after saying it was blocked by some EU governments following almost three years of operations and the rescue of 30,000 people at sea.

Libya, caught up in civil conflict since a 2011 uprising killed long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi, remains a major and dangerous transit route for mostly sub-Saharan people trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

EU states disagree on how to handle the migrants and some are taking a more hardline position, turning away rescue ships as they seek to dock to drop off rescued people.  

Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has banned some rescue ships from entering Italian waters.

On Friday, at least 164 people rescued by Spanish and German NGOs were stranded at sea and unable to enter Italian ports. The German ship was finally allowed to dock in Malta with 40 people on Sunday.

The 40 were rescued from a small boat off the Libyan coast by NGO Sea Eye's ship Alan Kurdi. The ship sailed then to southern Italy, saying the port of Lampedusa was the closest and safest harbour, according to Reuters.

Salvini said the ship was banned from Italian waters, and late on Saturday Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announced that a deal had been reached with the European Commission after a request by Germany, Reuters reported.

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"Malta will allow 40 migrants on board the German vessel Alan Kurdi to transfer to a Malta Armed Forces asset and enter port," Muscat said in a tweet. "No migrant will remain in Malta."

The Ocean Viking, the successor to the Aquarius, left Marseille early Sunday, according to an AFP journalist aboard the vessel.

The ship, displaying the red and white colours of its new Norwegian flag, is expected to reach the central Mediterranean in two to three days.

"A lot of (migrant) crossings are taking place right now, that's related to the summer weather conditions but also to the situation in Libya, which has become a real trigger and explains why people are taking even more risks than before," said Frederic Penard, the rescue group's operational director.

Funded in partnership with Doctors Without Borders, the Ocean Viking has 31 people onboard to deal with rescue operations, including crew, maritime rescuers, doctors, a midwife and a cultural mediator.

The UN migrant agency (IOM) says at least 840 people have gone missing so far this year trying to cross from Libya's coast to reach Europe, most of them in the central Mediterranean.

The Ocean Viking will not enter into Libyan waters, the rescue group said.

Civil society rescue operators say they face increasingly hostile reactions from some EU states that are resisting taking in rescued migrants. Only a few civilian rescue vessels are still operating in the Mediterranean.