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Italy arrests migrant rescue ship captain

Captain of Sea-Watch 3 rescue ship, Carola Rackete, on 26 June, 2019.
Captain of Sea-Watch 3 rescue ship, Carola Rackete, on 26 June, 2019. Sea-Watch International via REUTERS

The Sea-Watch 3 charity ship carrying dozens of migrants rescued off Libya forced its way into the Italian port of Lampedusa on Friday night after a lengthy standoff, the charity said. Captain Carola Rackete was arrested by police for refusing to obey a military vessel.


Sea-Watch spokesman Ruben Neugebauer told AFP the boat's German captain Carola Rackete, 31, was arrested and the 40 migrants were still on board after the vessel docked.

After manoeuvring the ship into port without permission, Rackete was arrested by police for refusing to obey a military vessel, a crime punishable by between three and 10 years in jail. She offered no resistance and was escorted off the vessel without handcuffs.

The ship docked despite the best efforts of a coastguard boat to prevent her from doing so by sailing back and forth between the vessel and the pier, according to the Repubblica daily.

While five European countries on Friday agreed to take in the migrants, permission for the Dutch-flagged Sea-Watch 3 to enter port and disembark the migrants did not come.

Sources at the interior ministry, headed by Italy's far-right Matteo Salvini, had said he was waiting for precise guarantees on "numbers, timelines and means" of the migrant redistribution.

In the meantime, prosecutors in Sicily launched a probe into Rackete on suspicion of aiding illegal immigration.

"Even though in the afternoon the prosecution has opened an investigation against me, at the same time they notified us that they will not help to bring the rescued off the ship," Rackete said in a video statement on Twitter.


No-one listened

Rackete had previously warned she was worried about the psychological condition of those rescued off crisis-hit Libya.

The ship and its captain were met by applause from a group of supporters standing on the pier on Lampedusa.

"It's been almost 60h since we declared a state of emergency. No one listened. No one took responsibility. Once more it's up to us, to Cpt. #CarolaRackete and her crew, to bringing the 40 people to safety," the charity said on Twitter.

With Italy restricting port entry, the Dutch-flagged vessel had been stuck in the Mediterranean, during a heatwave, since rescuing 53 migrants drifting in an inflatable raft off the coast of Libya on 12 June.

The most vulnerable people onboard were evacuated, but Salvini insisted the rest were unwelcome.

On Wednesday, after over two weeks at sea, and as tempers on the small boat frayed, Rackete decided she had no choice but to enter Italian waters illegally to bring the remaining migrants to safety.

The young, dreadlocked captain has become a symbol of defiance and a leftwing hero in Italy for challenging Salvini's "closed-ports" policy.

"We are proud of our captain, she did exactly the right thing. She upheld the law of the sea and brought people to safety,"

Johannes Bayer, chairman of the German charity Sea-Watch, said on Twitter.

Salvini, the head of the far-right League party, has seen his popularity inch steadily upwards on his hardline anti-immigrant platform.

Price to pay

But migrants are continuing to arrive in Italy, even if not in the same numbers as during the period between 2014 and 2017.

Nearly 500 migrants have landed on the country's coast over the past 16 days, according to the Italian interior ministry.

Meanwhile, the founder of Spanish migrant rescue charity Proactiva Open Arms said he was prepared to risk prison in order to save lives in the Mediterranean, following Sea-Watch's example.

"If I have to pay the price through prison time or a fine in order to save the lives of some people, then I will do so," the group's founder Oscar Camps told AFP by telephone.

The Open Arms ship took to the waters off the Libyan coast on Thursday, a decision which could already cost it a fine of up to 900,000 euros from the Spanish government, Camps said.

"At the moment there is no organisation out there (off the Libyan coast)," said Camps.

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