By Crispian Balmer
ROME, March 19 (Reuters) - Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said on Tuesday he would not let an Italian-flagged charity ship disembark 49 Africans rescued in the Mediterranean, setting up a fresh confrontation with humanitarian groups over migration.
The Mare Jonio picked up the migrants, including 12 minors, on Monday after their rubber boat started to sink in the central Mediterranean, some 42 miles (68 km) off the coast of Libya.
The vessel headed straight for the nearby Italian island of Lampedusa but was not granted permission to dock and is currently sailing close to land, awaiting further instructions.
Salvini, who heads the anti-immigrant League party, has told non-governmental organisations that Italy's ports are closed to them, accusing them of playing into the hands of human traffickers -- which they have denied.
"Italy must not give in to blackmail by a ship run by the social centres," Salvini said on Twitter, referring to left-wing groups that have helped finance the Mare Jonio.
The collective that organised the sea rescue, "Mediterranea", said it had operated in accordance with international human rights and maritime law. "Italy must indicate a safe haven," it said in a statement.
New arrivals to Italy have plummeted since Salvini took office last June, with just 348 migrants coming so far this year, according to official data, down 94 percent on the same period in 2018 and down 98 percent on 2017.
His closed-port policy has helped support for his League party double since March 2018 elections, with Italians backing his uncompromising stance after almost 650,000 migrants came to Italy from North Africa between 2014 and early 2018.
However, humanitarian groups say his actions have driven up deaths at sea and left many migrants languishing in overcrowded, dangerous Libyan detention centres.
Mediterranea said its rescue operation had saved the migrants either from death or from being picked up by Libyan coastguards and "taken back to suffer again the torture and horror from which they were fleeing".
Earlier this year, Salvini kept a Dutch-flagged vessel, run by a German charity, at sea for more than two weeks with nearly 50 migrants aboard before neighbouring Malta agreed to let the ship disembark there.
However, Salvini will struggle to find a similar solution this time because the Mare Jonio is Italian-flagged.
Last August, he blocked an Italian coastguard ship with 150 migrants aboard for almost a week before relenting. Magistrates put him under investigation for abuse of power and kidnapping and have asked parliament to strip him of his immunity from prosecution.
The upper house Senate is due to vote on that on Wednesday, but the request looks certain to be rejected, with Salvini arguing that he acted in the national interest. (Reporting by Crispian Balmer Editing by Robin Pomeroy)
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