MADRID — The first steps to relocate migrants who were kept at sea by Italy for nearly three weeks began on Wednesday as a new crisis loomed with more than 350 rescued people still on board a rescue ship in high seas.
The Ocean Viking, which is operated by the Doctors without Borders and SOS Mediterranee aid groups, has been on standby since it completed rescues of 356 women, men, and children in the central Mediterranean Sea nine days ago.
The ship is now in international waters, about 32 nautical miles from European shores between Malta and the Italian island of Linosa. Both countries have refused it permission to disembark.
SOS Mediterranee said people are sleeping on the floor, with few showers and a limited water capacity.
‘‘These people have suffered enormously, most of them have gone through detention centers in Libya,’’ the group said on Twitter. ‘‘They need to disembark as soon as possible.’’
France has pledged to take some of the migrants, repeating the model of an agreement earlier this week for some European Union members to accept a separate group rescued by the Open Arms, a vessel run by a Spanish aid group.
Italy’s hard-line interior minister has become a symbol for Europeans who reject migration. Matteo Salvini has closed his country’s ports to humanitarian boats and has accused them of colluding with human traffickers.
An Italian prosecutor is now probing possible kidnapping and other charges over Salvini’s refusal to allow dozens of migrants to get off the Open Arms, as well as the failure of officials to assign a safe port and provide hygienic
conditions and health care once the boat was in Italian waters.
Aid groups had repeatedly warned of an emergency situation on board, which resulted in the evacuation of nearly 70 of the 163 people.
Sicilian prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio ordered the seizure of the ship late Tuesday after 19 days at sea, as well as the immediate evacuation of its 83 remaining passengers.