ROME - Spain's maritime rescue service said Sunday it rescued more than 400 people from 15 small boats, most of them off the country's southern coast, while humanitarian groups lamented that the sole private rescue boat operating near the deadly central Mediterranean human trafficking route risked being put out of action by Italy's anti-migrant leaders.
While the Spaniards pulled 447 people to safety on Saturday in the western part of the sea, two humanitarian groups which operate the last private rescue vessel in the central Mediterranean, considered the deadliest route for trafficked migrants, said Panama had yanked the ship's registration following Italian complaints.
Panama's maritime authority said in a statement that it has begun procedures to remove the registration of Aquarius 2 after Italy complained the boat's captain failed to follow orders. It said Italy contends that the captain of Aquarius 2 defied instructions to return migrants to Libya that it had rescued from unseaworthy vessels launched by Libyan-based traffickers.
But SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders, the humanitarian groups jointly operating Aquarius 2, say violence-wracked Libya doesn't meet international standards for safe harbor. On Sunday, they asked European governments to reassure Panama that Italy's contentions are unfounded or issue a new flag so Aquarius 2 can keep operating.
Right-wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini won't let private rescue boats dock in Italy.
In a statement Sunday, the two non-governmental organizations alleged that Italy had forced the Panamanians to revoke the registration "under blatant economic and political pressure from the Italian government," which has vowed to stop arrivals in Italian ports of migrants saved by private rescue boats.
Italy's right-wing, anti-migrant interior minister, Matteo Salvini, denied that allegation in a tweet Sunday night, saying "no pressure at all on Panama for the Aquarius 2. I don't even know Panama's area code."
The Panama Maritime Authority said it was acting after the "principal complaint came from Italian authorities" about the ship's captain. It also noted that maritime authorities in Gibraltar over the summer took Aquarius 2 off its registry and had requested that it suspend its operations.
The two humanitarian groups in response said they "demand that European governments allow the Aquarius to continue its mission, by affirming to the Panamanian authorities that threats made by the Italian government are unfounded, or by immediately issuing a new flag under which the vessel can sail."
Nearly 300 migrants have died in waters separating Spain and Africa so far in 2018, according to the United Nations, and over 1,600 have died this year trying to cross the Mediterranean, as departures in smugglers boats from Libya's coast to Italy have sharply declined this year compared to previous years, after the Italian authorities began cracking down on the rescue boats.
But U.N. refugee agency officials say the central route from Libya is by far the deadliest for migrants smuggled by sea.
A recent spike in migrant arrivals in Spain has strained public services, and the Spanish government has faced further pressure since Italy refused to let humanitarian boats dock with migrants they have rescued from the sea.
Aquarius 2 was carrying 58 migrants it rescued in the last few days, and where they would be taken was unclear Sunday night.
The U.N. refugee agency says largely lawless Libya, bloodied by a recent surge in fighting among militias, isn't a safe harbor. Migrants returned there are brought back to detention centers, where food is scarce and beatings and sexual assault are common.
International maritime law stipulates that those rescued at sea are brought to the nearest safe harbor.
Italy, which has trained and equipped the Libyan coast guard, says that human trafficking will be discouraged by returning those rescued at sea to Libya.
The Mediterranean island of Malta has also come down hard on private rescue boats, blocking the vessels in their harbors and launching prosecutors' probes of their crew.
In other actions against migrants, Macedonian police said they have detained 120 migrants, in two separate cases, who illegally entered Macedonia from Greece as the number of illegal crossings has significantly risen in recent months.
Police said Sunday that a border police patrol discovered 37 migrants in southern Macedonia, near the frontier with Greece. They were detained, but police gave no more details about their nationality.
In a second case, 83 migrants, 11 of them minors, and most of them Pakistanis (76), were discovered packed in a truck coming from Greece. The truck driver was detained and the migrants transferred to the reception center in the southern town of Gevgelija.
Macedonian police say they have turned back about 6,600 migrants attempting to cross the border in the first half of 2018.