Over 160 migrants were seeking a safe port Friday after two charity vessels that had rescued them found themselves banned from entering Italian territorial waters.The Open Arms, run by a Spanish-run NGO, and the German Alan Kurdi are caught in the latest stand-off with far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini, who does not want charity ships to bring migrants to Italy.
Salvini may soon have to take his fight to two more rescue vessels.
Prosecutors in Sicily on Friday released the Mare Jonio -- run by the Italian left-wing collective Mediterranea -- which had been seized after a rescue in May.
The collective said it was preparing to set sail again as soon as possible.
It will be joined by the Ocean Viking, run jointly by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which is due to set off shortly from Marseille for waters off Libya.
The Proactiva Open Arms group said its vessel had plucked 69 migrants and asylum seekers -- including two children -- from a boat in trouble overnight Thursday.
They included people bearing "terrible signs of violence" and a nine-month pregnant woman having contractions, it said.
Open Arms on Thursday had already rescued 55 people from a sinking vessel, including two babies and some 15 women.
As they crowded together on deck under the shade of tarpaulins, the charity ship headed north but its destination was unclear.
Salvini has signed an order prohibiting the ship from entering Italian waters.
He has done the same for the Alan Kurdi, which is run by German NGO Sea-Eye and has 40 rescued migrants on board.
After initially heading to waters off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, the ship said Friday it had changed course for Malta.
Those on the Alan Kurdi, rescued Wednesday off Libya, hail from West Africa and include a pregnant woman, three young children and a man with gunshot wounds, according to Sea-Eye.
All migrants rescued by Open Arms have been disembarked in Spain since the middle of last year.
But the Spanish authorities have forbidden the ship to return to the waters off Libya, saying it would face a fine of between up to 900,000 euros, according to the charity.
During its last rotation off Libya in early July, the Alan Kurdi rescued 109 migrants and disembarked them in Malta.
Salvini has insisted since taking up the interior ministry post in June 2018 that rescued migrants can only land in Italy if an agreement is already in place with other European countries to look after them.
On Wednesday Salvini agreed to let 116 migrants on the Gregoretti coastguard ship disembark after EU countries agreed to share responsibility for looking after them.