ROME - Italian coast guard vessels Sunday blocked a ship carrying Sudanese refugees as it tried to dock in Sicily after sailing the Mediterranean for three weeks searching for a port of refuge.
The captain of the Cap Anamur had called for help, saying the refugees were threatening to jump overboard and that he was heading toward land whether authorized or not, Italian television reported.
Ambulances stood by at the dock as the ship floated about 500 yards offshore.
The Cap Anamur is operated by a German aid group of the same name. The group said it came across a rubber dinghy on June 20 containing 36 Sudanese - many reportedly fleeing a humanitarian crisis in the western province of Darfur - and a man from Sierra Leone.
The Italian Interior Ministry, which handles refugee and clandestine immigrants, said the captain had requested help, signaling "he was no longer able to guarantee the control of the ship and the command of the crew" and was concerned about the "psychic-physical" well-being of the passengers.
Police and coast guard craft had escorted the aid group Cap Anamur's ship toward the Porto Empedocle, but then an array of coast guard and police boats moved to guard the entrance to the port, preventing the ship from docking.
The ministry said doctors will examine the passengers and crew and those in need of care will be taken to local hospitals. But it said the boat itself would remain blocked outside the port to allow an investigation of what it called "the mysterious aspects regarding the conduct of the ship and crew."
It did not elaborate, but some Italian news reports have said authorities suspect that the ship might have been provoking a standoff to test the immigration policies of Europe.
Contacts were underway with German authorities to "verify aspects tied to the position of the captain and to follow up on the requests for asylum which supposedly have been made to Germany," the ministry said.