Ship captain docked in Italy after migrant suicide fears

Detained German says sorry for dockside incident Italians called an 'act of war'

Carola Rackete, the 31-year-old Sea-Watch 3 captain, is escorted off the ship by police and taken away for questioning, in Lampedusa, Italy June 29, 2019. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane
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The German captain of a migrant rescue ship who defied an Italian government ban to dock at the island of Lampedusa expressed regret on Sunday for any alarm caused when her ship trapped a police boat against the quay.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-immigrant League party, called the incident "a criminal act, an act of war".

Carola Rakete, who was arrested on Saturday after two weeks in international waters with dozens of rescued African migrants, switched off her engines when she realised the Sea-Watch 3 might have got too close to the patrol boat, her lawyer Alessandro Gamberini said.

"She is very sorry to have a created a situation of danger and fright among tax police officials," Mr Gamberini said.

"It was a difficult manoeuvre but she always felt she was conducting it in a safe way. She had been approaching extremely slowly."

Government vessels had tried to stop the Sea-Watch 3 docking and one ended up squeezed between the ship and the quay before freeing itself, videos showed.

Ms Rakete, 31, was arrested for resisting a military ship after being denied permission to dock under laws introduced by Mr Salvini to deter non-government rescue ships.

She is also being investigated on suspicion of aiding people-smugglers.

But German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged Italy not to treat her as a criminal.

"Anyone who saves people’s lives cannot be considered a criminal," Mr Steinmeier told the German public broadcaster ZDF.

Ms Rakete's boat was impounded and Sea-Watch could be fined up to €50,000 (Dh208,000).

Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, leader of the League's coalition partner, the Five-Star Movement, said he would propose that boats seized for entering Italian waters illegally should became state property.

The Interior Ministry said the 41 migrants who disembarked the Sea-Watch 3, run by the German charity Sea-Watch, were "fed and spent a quiet night, so it's unclear why the NGO needed to dock without authorisation".

But Sea-Watch spokeswoman Giorgia Linardi said Ms Rakete had felt she could no longer keep the migrants on the ship because suicide threats were forcing its crew to keep a constant watch.

"I say 'thank you' to Sea Watch," said Isaac, 21, one of the migrants. "Because if it wasn't for Sea-Watch, I'd be a dead body by now."

Mr Salvini said the EU had left Italy alone to deal with the arrivals by sea, and the issue also caused friction with Paris.

After French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner criticised Italy's approach, Mr Salvini told Sky TG24 television that France should open its ports to two NGO boats that were in the Mediterranean.

"Every country, I reckon, is free to decide who comes in and who doesn't," he said. "Thousands of migrants are pushed back at the Italian border with France."

Mr Salvini said the Lampedusa arrivals would be divided up between France, Germany, Luxembourg, Finland and Portugal.

"A magistrate has 48 hours to decide if the lady in charge of the ship that tried to squash four policemen like sardines deserves to remain in jail or not," Mr Salvini said.

"If she is released, we have an expulsion order ready."