The captain of a migrant-loaded German aid ship which rammed an Italian border force boat has been arrested.
An extraordinary standoff between the two vessels off the coast of the Mediterranean’s Lampedusa island was broken when Captain Carola Rackete, 31, plowed into the smaller motorboat which was blocking her ship from port.
Two weeks earlier, Ms Rackete and her crew rescued 40 migrants and had requested permission to drop them off on the tiny Italian-owned island.
But the country’s anti-migrant interior minister Matteo Salvini refused to let them disembark on Lampedusa until other European Union countries agreed to take in the asylum-seekers
Five countries offered on Friday home the migrants but still the Italian government did not give permission for the the Dutch-flagged Sea-Watch 3 to disembark.
At dawn this morning, Ms Rackete, fed up, steamed towards the shore and in doing so smacked into the much smaller border force motorboat.
The joyful migrants hugged the crew and kissed the dock upon arrival, after 17 days at sea.
Ms Rackete was immediately taken into custody and Mr Salvini condemned her action’s as ‘incredible’.
He told RAI state radio: ‘I have asked for the arrest of an outlaw who put at risk the lives of the border police on the motorboat.’
He added that he also asked authorities to sequester the ship, ‘which goes around the Mediterranean breaking laws’.
The German humanitarian group Sea-Watch rescued 53 people from an unseaworthy boat launched by Libya-based traffickers on June 12.
In recent days, 13 migrants were taken off Sea-Watch 3 for medical reasons and taken to Italy for treatment.
Sea-Watch defended the captain’s actions, as did Italian opposition politicians who had gone aboard a few days earlier in a show of solidarity to the migrants.
In a statement the company said: ‘She enforced the rights of the rescued people to be disembarked to a place of safety.’
Democratic Party politician Graziano Delrio told reporters after disembarking that Italian judicial authorities will ultimately decide if Ms Rackete broke the law.
He likened her actions to that of a driver of a Red Cross ambulance ‘which goes through a red light’ to speed ailing patients to a hospital.
As Mr Salvini has done since Italy’s populist government took office a year ago, he had insisted that no migrants disembark in Italy from a humanitarian rescue ship until other EU countries pledge to accept them while their asylum requests are processed.
On Friday, Italy’s foreign ministry said five countries had offered to take the remaining 40 on board Sea-Watch 3 – Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal.
Mr Salvini contends that humanitarian rescue vessels essentially aid Libyan-based traffickers who launch flimsy rubber dinghies and rickety fishing boats overcrowded with migrants, many of them from Africa, eager to reach European shores in hope of a better life.