By Antonio Parrinello and Steve Scherer
CATANIA, Italy (Reuters) - A dozen far-right millennials from Europe and North America plan to set sail next week to "defend Europe" from what they call a migrant invasion from Africa, using social media as their weapons.
The supporters of the Identitarian movement, which says it wants to preserve Europe's identity, have rented a ship to take them to international waters off the Libyan coast so they can monitor humanitarian rescuers, who they say collude with people smugglers who cram migrants onto dangerous boats.
"There is a difference between saving lives and smuggling people to Europe," Martin Sellner, an Austrian who is leading the effort, told Reuters at Catania's port.
"What they are doing in fact is making millions of dollars for human trafficking rings," he said. The activists, who are all in their 20s and early to mid-30s, will stay at sea about 10 days, but may renew the mission if it is successful, Sellner said.
Charity groups operating rescue ships are concerned that the activists will try to disrupt them and put lives at risk.
The mission, which critics call a publicity stunt, is the latest in a series of accusations and media attacks against the non-governmental rescuers.
In carefully choreographed videos posted on YouTube, the Identitarian message sounds much like that of Europe's far-right politicians, but Sellner characterizes the group as a "patriotic NGO" that is the "avant-garde of this patriotic shift in mainstream politics in Europe".
The group is tapping into growing unease, especially in Italy, about immigration from North Africa that has brought more than a half a million impoverished migrants and refugees to Europe in less than four years. In that time, more than 13,000 have died trying to make the crossing.
Next week the nine NGOs operating rescue missions are to meet with the Italian government, which wants them to sign a "code of conduct", capping months of controversy. The charities have repeatedly denied any ties to smugglers.
"As a humanitarian organization, our biggest concern is the women, children and men that we rescue from unseaworthy boats," a spokeswoman for SOS Mediterranee, which operates the Aquarius rescue ship, told Reuters. "Any attempt of interference would endanger the lives of people in need of protection."
So far this year sea migrant arrivals are approaching 100,000, 13 percent higher than last year, and some 200,000 asylum seekers are living in state-funded shelters.
"I'm starting to have serious difficulties," Catania's mayor, Enzo Bianco, told Reuters. The city's port took in 10,000 migrants during the first half of the year. An Ixe poll on Friday said 78 percent of Italians thought they had been abandoned by their European Union allies.
But Bianco, a member of the ruling center-left Democratic Party, said he will seek to keep the C-Star, the ship rented by the Identitarians, from entering the city's port and "pouring fuel on the fire".
"They are like vigilantes, people who take the law into their own hands without having any authority... the situation is too tense to be turned into the Wild West," he said.
The Identitarians are young and media savvy, quick to post their protests -- like when they hung a banner reading "secure borders, secure future" on the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin -- to Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.
North American conservative YouTube pundits Lauren Southern and Brittany Pettibone are also supposed to go on their sea mission, but no mainstream news outlets will be on board.
To raise money for the operation, the Identitarians launched a website in May and have gathered some $170,000, enough to rent the 40-metre (yard) C-Star, which has been repeatedly delayed on its trip from its home port of Djibouti.
"This massive immigration is changing the face of our streets, of our cities, and soon the people who have been living here for thousands of years will be an endangered minority," Sellner said earlier this month when he announced the sea mission.
Emma Bonino, a former foreign minister who is calling on Italy's government to come up with better integration policies, said the Identitarians are trying to capitalize on increasing discomfort among Italians.
Poor migrants "sleep in the rail station or in the street or they cannot work, so people see them doing nothing. This is what makes people uneasy," she said in an interview in her Rome home.
Italians "would like this problem to be managed in a more human and regular way," she said.
(Additional reporting and writing by Steve Scherer in Rome; Editing by Toby Davis)