ROME (AP) – 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, under close watch by coast guard boats.

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 European nations.

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.

The ministry said it was determined to respect human rights while “not giving any leeway to any kind of illicit behavior.”

As evening arrived, bottles of water were delivered to the ship by the coast guard.

Speaking by phone from the ship, Elias Bierdal, a Cap Anamur spokesman, told The Associated Press in Germany: “This situation on board is not bearable any more. The boat people are mentally and physically in a very bad state.”

Bierdel said the refusal to allow the boat to dock “proves which face Europe really shows.”

Cap Anamur, a Cologne, Germany-based group, said the Sudanese gave the boat’s captain a handwritten asylum application late Saturday and that it was sent on to the German government.

Germany’s foreign ministry declined comment.

Earlier, Italian authorities had said the refugees first passed through Malta and should have applied for asylum there.

The German ship picked up the men 100 miles from the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa, according to Christopher Hein, director of the Italian Council for Refugees. He said the ship sailed through Maltese waters but didn’t stop at the island.

In Geneva on Friday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees urged the Italians to let the passengers disembark.

United Nations officials and human rights groups have accused the Sudanese government of backing Arab militiamen in a campaign to drive African farmers from Darfur. U.N. officials say thousands of people have been killed and more than a million forced from their homes. Sudan’s government denies any involvement.

AP-ES-07-11-04 1407EDT

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