By Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - The Italian government on Tuesday threatened to shut humanitarian groups that operate migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean out of the country's ports if they do not sign a "code of conduct".
Italy fears that the ships are making it too easy for smugglers to operate and that they act as an incentive for migrants who want to reach Europe. An Italian court has also suggested they collude with Libya-based smugglers, which the charities deny.
Italy's coastguard coordinates all rescues off the coast of Libya, which has been shattered by years of civil war. Almost 100,000 have been brought to Italy this year, adding to the half a million brought over the three previous years.
As a high-ranking Interior Ministry official illustrated the 12-point document that charities fear will limit their capacity to save lives, one of the groups, Proactiva Open Arms, recovered 13 bodies off the Libyan coast.
A photograph posted on Twitter showed the corpses strewn across the bottom of a large yellow raft that had been crammed with more than 160 migrants. More than 2,200 people have died in the Central Mediterranean this year.
"Several pregnant women and mothers among the (dead)," Proactiva's founder Oscar Camps wrote on Twitter, adding, "and we are apparently the only ones who need a code of conduct."
Members of the nine non-governmental groups working at sea sought changes to the document, ultimately driving Mario Morcone, chief of staff for Interior Minister Marco Minniti, to express his frustration, according to a source who attended the meeting.
"Your solidarity with Italy is hypocritical," he quipped, according to the source.
There will be another meeting on Friday at the ministry, when the NGOs must submit the changes that they are seeking.
Since February the charities have been accused of colluding with people smugglers and attacked in the Italian media. This week a dozen far-right activists are setting out to sea to monitor their work.
The NGOs have repeatedly denied any ties to smuggling and no evidence of wrongdoing has ever been presented. They say their only objective is to save lives.
"We are fully aware that Italy is in urgent need of support from European member states," Sandra Mammamy, a Sea-Watch coordinator, told Reuters after the meeting. "But the code of conduct is a desperate attempt to blame someone else for Italy's problem."
Among the most controversial points is one that asks NGOs to let police on board so they can search for smugglers hidden amongst the migrants.
Another point forbids ships from transferring people to other boats, a measure apparently aimed at shutting down smaller rescue ships that normally transfer migrants to larger vessels to be brought to Italy.
Fulvio Vassallo, a professor of international law at the University of Palermo, said in an interview on Radio Radicale that many points in the "code of conduct" would be in violation of international maritime law.
"The code of conduct isn't meant to save more lives but to limit the number of people rescued by the NGOs," Vassallo Paleologo said. "It's being sold to the public as something that will lower departures from Libya, which it will not do. Unfortunately, it could increase the number of victims."
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Hugh Lawson)