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France accuses Italy of stoking ‘hysterical’ atmosphere over migrants in the Mediterranean

France has accused the Italian government of behaving “hysterically” over migrants and refugees, earning a furious rebuke from Matteo Salvini, the Italian interior minister.

The criticism from Paris came as Mr Salvini said the German captain of a migrant rescue vessel should go to prison for defying Italian orders and bringing a group of rescued asylum seekers to the island of Lampedusa.

Italy “had not been up to the task” of managing relatively small numbers of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, said Sibeth Ndiaye, a French government spokeswoman.

“Mr Salvini’s behaviour has not been acceptable as far as I am concerned,” she said, accusing him of creating a “hysterical” atmosphere over migration.

“This is a painful subject, a complex subject which the EU and France have previously been in solidarity with Italy over.”

The criticism was met with a swift response from Mr Salvini, who is also deputy prime minister as well as head of the hard-Right League party.

“My behaviour regarding immigration is unacceptable? The French government should stop insulting us and open its ports (to migrants),” Mr Salvini said in a statement.

“Italians have already received too many (migrants) and spent too much on them. The next boats? Their destination should be Marseilles.”

Italy and France have clashed repeatedly over migrants, with Rome accusing Paris of forcibly pushing asylum seekers back over the border and claiming that France has failed to shoulder enough of the burden.

The acrimony dates back years but has intensified under Italy’s populist government, which was sworn into office last summer.

The latest flare-up comes as the German captain of an NGO rescue boat faced criminal charges for defying Italian authorities by bringing 40 African migrants into the port of Lampedusa after they had been at sea for more than two weeks.

Carola Rackete, 31, the skipper of the Dutch-flagged Sea Watch 3, could face up to 10 years in prison.

The Italians accuse her of deliberately ramming a police launch in order to enter the port.

Italy’s ports have been closed to NGO rescue boats since the coalition came to power last year, with Mr Salvini saying that the ships act as a “taxi service” for migrants trying to escape Libya.

Sea Watch has pledged to continue rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean, if necessary with another vessel, as it faces the prospect of its vessel in Lampedusa being impounded.

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