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The Latest: Italy alleges extremists smuggled migrants

The Latest on Europe's migrant crisis (all times local):

5:25 p.m.

Italian police say they have broken up a migrant-smuggling ring allegedly organized by Tunisian extremists.

Carabinieri police in Sicily's capital said on Wednesday that some suspects were under investigation for allegedly advocating terrorist acts as well as aiding clandestine immigration.

They say warrants were issued for 14 suspects in Sicily and one in northern Italy, with several arrests made.

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Italian media quoted investigators as saying a Tunisian turncoat told police the ring used motorboats to smuggle migrants and tobacco to Sicily, and to get alleged extremists out of Tunisia.

The news outlets also had investigators saying there wasn't confirmation that any Islamist extremists had reached Italy that way.

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4:50 p.m.

Forty-nine migrants who were kept in limbo on two private rescue ships since late last month have arrived in Malta.

Maltese military vessels took on the migrants while the ships still were in the Mediterranean Sea and ferried the passengers to land on Wednesday as part of a deal brokered by the European Union.

Many of them waved and cheered at cameras recording their arrival. One man formed the shape of a heart with his hands as he stepped off a Maltese military boat.

Malta refused to let the rescue ships operated by German nonprofit groups on the Mediterranean Sea into its ports, as did Italy.

Thirty-two migrants were rescued on Dec. 22 and 17 more on Dec. 29 from unseaworthy smugglers' boats.

Eight EU nations have agreed to accept some of them, ending the stalemate at sea.

Under the same deal, many of some 249 migrants Malta said its military boats picked up last month also will be transferred to other countries.

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2:15 p.m.

Germany expects to take in 60 migrants who were already in Malta or are about to arrive there under an agreement to defuse the latest standoff over rescue ships in the Mediterranean Sea.

Interior Ministry spokesman Steve Alter stressed in Berlin Wednesday that the move for European Union countries to share out many of the 249 migrants already rescued by Maltese military ships — plus 49 who have been stranded aboard private rescue vessels — is "an ad hoc decision ... for the current situation." He said that Germany still aims to reach "a long-term and sustainable mechanism."

Alter said eight countries have currently indicated their willingness to take in the migrants but talks are ongoing with more.

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1:45 p.m.

Italian Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini has slammed a deal on rescued migrants that was brokered by the European Union, saying it will encourage human traffickers.

The deal, announced by Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat on Wednesday, will see EU countries including Italy take in 49 migrants stranded aboard private rescue ships since last month. In addition, the countries will also take in many of the 249 migrants already in Malta.

Salvini told reporters during a visit to Poland Wednesday he "absolutely" opposes new migrant arrivals in Italy, clashing with his own premier on the issue. Salvini, who is also interior minister, leads the right-wing, anti-migrant League, one of two coalition parties in Italy's populist government.

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte has said that if Italy takes about 15 rescued migrant children and their parents that wouldn't "stain" the country's crackdown on accepting migrants rescued by private aid vessels.

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12:10 p.m.

The European Union's top migration official has thanked EU countries for agreeing to host 49 rescued migrants stranded at sea but complained that it had taken much too long to find them safe harbor.

EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said Wednesday that "the past weeks have not been Europe's finest hour."

Avramopoulos said the fact that some of the migrants had to wait at sea for three weeks "is not what the European Union stands for."

He underlined that Europe can't count "on disorganized, ad hoc solutions" to manage such cases, and he called for the long-stalled reform of EU asylum rules to be concluded.

EU rules oblige countries where migrants first land to process any asylum claims, placing a heavy burden on Mediterranean states like Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta.

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12 p.m.

The 49 rescued migrants who were stranded at sea since last month will be brought to Malta and then distributed among eight European Union countries.

The deal, announced by Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, breaks a stalemate that began after 32 were rescued by a German aid group's vessel on Dec. 22. The other 17 were rescued on Dec. 29 by a different aid boat. Both Italy and Malta have refused to let private rescue ships bring migrants to their shores.

Instead, the deal sees the migrants transferred soon on Maltese military vessels to bring them ashore, while the private boats won't be allowed to dock.

The eight countries where the migrants will go are Germany, France, Portugal, Ireland, Romania, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Italy.

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11:50 a.m.

Spanish police say they have broken up a gang that smuggled people and drugs by boat from Morocco into Spain, charging migrants up to 2,000 euros ($2,300) a trip.

A police statement Wednesday said the group earned around 25,000 euros for each boat that made it across the Mediterranean, often carrying both people and hashish in the unsafe vessels.

Investigators estimate the gang had brought more than 500 migrants into southern Spain's Andalucia region since last August. The gang took the arriving migrants by truck to safe houses.

The European Union's border agency Frontex says about 57,000 migrant crossings were detected last year in Spain, double the figure for 2017.

Police say they arrested eight members of the gang, including four who are suspected of being the ringleaders in Spain.

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