LAMPEDUSA, Sicily -- The German captain of a humanitarian rescue ship was arrested after she rammed her vessel into an Italian border police motorboat while docking Saturday at a tiny Mediterranean island in defiance of Italy's interior minister.
Jeering onlookers shouted "handcuffs, handcuffs" as Carola Rackete, the 31-year-old captain, was escorted off the boat at Lampedusa, an island that is closer to north Africa than to the Italian mainland.
Meanwhile, the 40 migrants aboard the ship hugged workers from the German Sea-Watch charity who helped them during their 17 days at sea. Some of the migrants kissed the ground after disembarking from Sea-Watch 3.
The migrants had been rescued from an unseaworthy vessel launched by Libya-based human traffickers, but Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini had refused to let them disembark on Lampedusa until other European Union countries agreed to take them. Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal pledged to do so.
The humanitarian rescue operation ended when Rackete decided she could no longer wait for permission to dock given the odyssey of the migrants aboard.
"It's enough. After 16 days following the rescue, #SeaWatch3 enters in port," the parent Sea-Watch organization tweeted early Saturday, shortly before the ship started heading dockside.
The captain steered her vessel toward the island before dawn, ramming the much smaller police boat, which was blocking Sea-Watch 3's path to the dock.
In past years, Lampedusa had received international praise for its willingness to welcome many of the hundreds of thousands of rescued migrants.
But even as the migrants' numbers dwindled as Italy cracked down on private rescue ships, many Italians lost patience. Salvini's anti-migrant League party has soared in popularity.
Some on the island applauded when the migrants disembarked. But another group yelled insults, including "Gypsy, go home" to the captain. A senator from the opposition Democrats, Davide Faraone, filmed the scene and then posted it on Twitter.
"You must handcuff her immediately," a woman shouted before Rackete was hustled into a police car.
Rackete's lawyer, Leonardo Marino, told Italian state TV that she was arrested for investigation of resisting a warship, a reference to plowing into the motorboat of the customs and border police force. No one was injured, but the motorboat's side was damaged. If convicted, Rackete faces up to 10 years in prison.
She also risks a fine as high as $58,000 under a recent Salvini-backed law cracking down on private rescue vessels. Any fine might be covered by a reported $115,000 that supporters in Italy recently donated to help Sea-Watch.
Salvini criticized the captain's defiance, branding her actions as tantamount to an "act of war."
"I have asked for the arrest of an outlaw who put [lives] at risk," Salvini told RAI state radio. He also ordered that authorities sequester the ship, "which went around the Mediterranean breaking laws."
Sea-Watch defended Rackete's actions. "She enforced the rights of the rescued people to be disembarked to a place of safety," Sea-Watch said in a statement.
But a Sicily-based prosecutor, Luigi Patronaggio, indicated otherwise.
"Humanitarian reasons cannot justify inadmissible acts against those who work at sea for the safety of everybody," Italy's ANSA wire service quoted the prosecutor as saying.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas appeared to criticize the Italian decision to arrest the captain.
"Saving lives is a humanitarian duty," he said on Twitter. "Rescue at sea must not be criminalized. It's up to the Italian justice system to swiftly resolve the allegations."
A judge will decide after private hearings in the coming days whether Rackete should be freed or should stay under house arrest while the investigation continues.
Among those backing the captain's conduct was a leader of Germany's Green party, Robert Habeck.
"The arrest of Captain Rackete shows the nefariousness of the Italian government and the dilemma of European refugee policy," he told the German media group RND. "The real scandal is the drownings in the Mediterranean, the lack of legal pathways to flee and the absence of a European distribution mechanism."
His anger was echoed by the head of Germany's Protestant Church, Heinrich Bedford-Strohm.
"A young woman is arrested in a European country because she saved human lives and wanted to bring the rescued people to land safely," he said in a statement. "[This is] a disgrace for Europe!"
Information for this article was contributed by Frank Jordans of The Associated Press.
A Section on 06/30/2019
Print Headline: Migrant-aid ship rams Italian boat; captain arrested