France said on Thursday it would allow an NGO ship carrying over 200 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean to dock at the port of Toulon, following tense exchanges with Italy, whose attitude the French government harshly criticised.
Immigration is a hot-button issue in both countries, and Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said Italy's rightist government's ban on the boat, which had been stuck off Italy for days, was "incomprehensible" and "selfish."
"In this context, France decided on an exceptional basis to make up for the Italian government's unacceptable behaviour and to invite the ship to come to the military port of Toulon," Darmanin told a news conference.
There were 234 people on board, including 57 children. France will welcome about a third, Germany another third and the rest will be shared out among other EU countries.
The ship was on Thursday sailing by the French island of Corsica, the MarineTraffic tracker app showed, but had been close to Italy before that. It was set to arrive in Toulon on Friday.
"There is no doubt that it (the Ocean Viking) was in Italy's research and rescue zone," said Darmanin, saying "there will be extremely strong consequences on the bilateral relationship."
To start with, France will not take in over 3,000 migrants who had arrived in Italy and which it had previously agreed to take in. It will also reinforce controls at its borders with Italy.
The question of how to handle immigration in the largely border-free European Union has been a source of tensions for years, but France's very open and harsh criticism of Italy on Thursday is more unusual.
"France very deeply regrets that Italy has decided not to behave like a responsible European state," Darmanin said.
Italy and Spain, where most of the migrants crossing the Mediterranean by sea arrive, have long said that others, including France, must do more to help.
A total of four charity ships carrying around 1,000 migrants had been stuck off Italy in recent days, with the government urging flag states Germany and Norway to take charge of them.
Two of the boats disembarked on Tuesday in the city of Catania, in Sicily, after the government initially allowed ashore only those it said were vulnerable. A third smaller vessel was allowed to dock in the southern port of Reggio Calabria. Ocean Viking was the fourth.