AGRIGENTO, Sicily (AP) -Thirty-seven Africans stranded offshore on an aid agency ship for weeks were allowed to dock Monday. But authorities later arrested two aid workers and indicated that some immigrants lied about coming from Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region.

The German aid group Cap Anamur said its ship rescued the 37 men from a broken down vessel in the Mediterranean on June 20.

“The boat was in danger and the engine was broken,” Cap Anamur official Bernd Goeken said. “Water was flooding all over the boat and they were calling on us to help so we took them on board.”

The aid agency said some of the men identified themselves as refugees from the Darfur region, described by the United Nations as the world’s worse humanitarian crisis.

For several days, Italy blocked the ship from docking, while Germany, Malta and aid groups debated who should take the immigrants.

On Monday, Italy let the Cap Anamur ship dock at Porto Empedocle on the southern coast of Sicily. The first reactions were joy from the immigrants and from groups that had demanded they be allowed into Italy.

Hours later, the situation had changed radically. Police arrested – the captain, Stefan Schmidt, the German organization’s head, Elias Bierdel, and a member of the crew – for allegedly aiding illegal immigration.

A statement from police read: “From the first checks it has actually emerged that they are not of Sudanese nationality, but on the contrary appear to be Ghanaian and Nigerian.”

Speaking after the arrests, Goeken said from Germany that he was dismayed and that it was against arrangements made between the group and Italy. “The Italians held themselves to nothing,” he said.

The ship picked up the men 100 miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa and 180 miles from Malta.

It then headed toward Italy, passing through Maltese waters but never stopping on the island, aid officials have said.

Authorities said that because the refugees had first passed through Malta they should have applied for asylum there. Germany backed that view.

But the German aid organization insisted it wanted to land in Italy. Some experts noted that Italy is seen as a preferable destination to Malta because of its better treatment of refugees.

On Sunday, the Italian Interior Ministry said the ship’s captain had requested help, signaling “he was no longer able to guarantee control of the ship and command of the crew,” and was concerned about the well being of the refugees. A priest who had gone aboard said some passengers had threatened to jump overboard.

The Cap Anamur aid group is known outside the country as “German Emergency Doctors Union.” Its longest running project is in Sudan, where the organization has been running a hospital since 1997. The organization came upon the refugees purely by chance, said project director Goeken in a telephone interview from Cap Anamur’s headquarters in Cologne.

One of its ships had just finished dropping off medical and other supplies to Cap Anamur projects in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Angola and was on its way back to Germany when it experienced engine problems and had to stop for repairs in Malta.

As it was testing the engines, it came across the refugees in the boat near Lampedusa.

“When we rescued these people it was really not planned but our intention is to work on this problem and tell the European people that many Africans are trying to get to Europe and are dying on the seas,” he said.

The refugees had been on their small boat for three days, then spent three weeks on the Cap Anamur. “Mentally for them it was very stressful, and some said that they might jump into the sea because they couldn’t take the pressure,” Goeken said.

This case won particular attention due to international concern about Darfur. A rebellion by the inhabitants of African origin led to a counterinsurgency by government troops and pro-government Arab militia.



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