HMS Bulwark to join Mediterranean rescue efforts after diplomatic dispute

The UK government was keen to secure assurances that international law would be upheld, dictating that rescued people should be taken to the nearest safe port, at which they would be able to claim asylum

The British navy’s flagship is poised to join a big migrant rescue operation in the Mediterranean as early as Tuesday after spending the weekend stuck in port amid a diplomatic spat over where rescued people should be disembarked and processed.

HMS Bulwark was dispatched by Prime Minister David Cameron for use in a pan-European attempt to save migrant lives, amid a public outcry over the record number of migrant drownings in the Mediterranean. Up to 900 people drowned in one weekend last month.

But the 176-metre-long vessel was stuck at anchor in Sicily and did not take part in a record-breaking weekend of search and rescue in which about 7,000 people were saved from dinghies and other unpromising vessels.

Involvement was held up by deliberations between the Italian and British foreign ministries. Britain, which agreed to send the ship after emergency EU talks last month, sought guarantees that the migrants rescued by HMS Bulwark could be taken to Italian ports once they are saved from the high seas.

One government source said British operations in the Mediterranean were expected to start today.

A Royal Navy spokesman said, “We’re working through with the Italians about how it may be used, and once we’ve got that agreement we’re there to work on search-and-rescue efforts.”

It is understood that the UK government was keen to secure assurances that international law would be upheld, dictating that rescued people should be taken to the nearest safe port, at which they would be able to claim asylum.

A Foreign Office spokesman said, “The prime minister was clear at the European council that Britain would be playing its role in tackling the current crisis in the Mediterranean but that our focus would be on saving lives, not offering people asylum in the UK.

“Discussions between EU partners remain ongoing to ensure close coordination and we are not going to speculate on any operational decisions at this stage.”

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