ROME- An Italian court has seized a charity ship on charges that its crew helped illegal immigration by rescuing more than 200 migrants from boats before Libya's coastguard could move in to take them back to Africa, the aid group said.

The case highlighted an increasingly highly charged stand-off between humanitarian groups seeking to save lives on the open seas and European authorities trying to stem the number of people making the dangerous crossing in the first place.

The Spanish charity Proactiva Open Arms picked up the migrants who were in unsafe rubber boats in international waters 73 miles (117 km) off Libya's coast on Thursday, Italy's coast guard said.

The charity ignored orders to stay away by Libya's coastguard, which claimed responsibility for taking in migrants in that stretch of sea, the Italian coastguard added.

Proactiva released footage that it said showed a young boy sitting in his father's lap on its ship. "He would have never forgiven us had we returned him to hell," Oscar Camps, the founder of Proactiva, said on Twitter. The United Nations has said migrants face dire conditions in Libya.

The charity said it took the migrants to the Sicilian port of Pozzallo on Saturday.

A day later, a court on the island ordered the ship's seizure on suspicion that three Proactiva members, including the captain of the ship and Camps, were operating it as part of a criminal association that favoured illegal immigration, Proactiva lawyer Rosa Emanuela Lo Faro said.

"The courts says that Proactiva violated an international agreement," Lo Faro told Reuters by telephone, denying any wrongdoing.

"This is an agreement made with the Libyan government that Open Arms knows nothing about. Open Arms was never notified that the area was a rescue zone managed by the Libyans," she said.



It is the second time Italy has seized a rescue vessel. A German ship, the Iuventa, was impounded in August on accusations it had aided illegal immigration. The group, Jugend Rettet, denies the charges and is seeking to get the ship back.

Italy has agreed to hand over full responsibility for sea rescues across about a tenth of the Mediterranean to Libya's coast guard by 2020, an accord first reported by Reuters in December.*:nL8N1OE34J

The country has been on the frontline of boat migrant arrivals for the past four years, when more than 600,000 migrants have reached the country's shores.

Like in Germany, which took in hundreds of thousands of refugees in 2015, the issue was one of the most divisive of the Italy's election campaign. The March 4 vote awarded both the anti-immigrant League party and the 5-Star Movement for their hard line on migrants.

"Finally an Italian prosecutor who blocks human trafficking," League leader Matteo Salvini said on Twitter.

Vincent Cochetel, the U.N. refugee agency's special envoy for the central Mediterranean, said on Twitter he hoped the case did not mark a return of what he called "the campaign we saw in 2017 against NGOs involved in rescue-at-sea".

(Reporting by Steve Scherer) ((; +39-06-8522-4369;))