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Italian police arrest migrant-rescue ship captain after docking

LAMPEDUSA, Italy (Reuters) - Italian police arrested on Saturday the German captain of a migrant-rescue ship at the center of a standoff with the Italian government, after she docked at the island port of Lampedusa.

Carola Rackete, the 31-year-old Sea-Watch 3 captain is seen arriving at the Finance police headquarters in Lampedusa, Italy June 29, 2019. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

The Dutch-flagged Sea-Watch 3, operated by German charity Sea-Watch, has been at sea for more than two weeks with rescued Africans on board.

After waiting in international waters for an invitation from Italy or an EU state to accept the ship, German captain Carola Rackete decided this week to sail for the southern Italian island of Lampedusa but was blocked by Italian government vessels.

The ship eventually entered the port in the early hours of Saturday morning amid a heavy police presence.

Live television video showed the 31-year-old Rackete being taken off Sea-Watch 3 by tax police and driven away amid applause and barracking from bystanders gathered at the port.

She has been arrested for “resisting a war ship”, a charge which, according to media reports, carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.

After Rackete was taken away, 40 Africans on board the ship were allowed to disembark and were taken to a reception center on the island.

Italy’s right-wing interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who is taking a tough line against migrant rescue ships, previously said he would only allow Rackete to dock when other European Union states agree to immediately take the migrants.

“Outlaw arrested. Pirate ship seized. Big fine on foreign NGO. Migrants all redistributed in other European countries. Mission completed,” Salvini said in a tweet on Saturday.

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He said Sea-Watch 3, which had not been given permission to dock, had put at risk tax police by squashing one of their motor launches against the port front as it tried to stop the docking.

Salvini, who criticized the Netherlands saying it had given the ship a flag and then washed its hands of the matter, told RAI radio that Italy had been given assurances by five European countries they would take the migrants.

He did not name the countries but media reports said France, Germany, Luxembourg, Finland and Portugal had agreed.

France’s interior minister, Christophe Castaner, said in a statement that the French authorities would take in 10 of the migrants.

But he also criticized unilateral moves by Italy and defended French and EU support for Italy in handling migrant arrivals. “It is false to say that the EU has not shown solidarity toward Italy in this context,” he said.

Migration policy has been among the sources of tension between Italy and France and has also caused considerable friction between Rome and Brussels.

Deputy Prime Minister Luigi di Maio said on Facebook that Italy had at times been treated as the laughing stock of Europe but that it could no longer be left alone to tackle the migrant problem.

“Now things have to change: Either Europe wakes up or we wake it up,” he said.

In a tweet, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said saving lives was a humanitarian obligation and sea rescue should not be criminalized. “It is up to the Italian courts to clear up these accusations quickly.”

Rackete, who has become a symbol of defiance for challenging Salvini’s authority, is already under investigation for breaking Italy’s beefed-up laws against non-government rescue ships.

A Foreign Office source said on Saturday under Italian laws Sea-Watch 3 would be seized, adding it faced a fine of 20,000 euros ($22,700) which, if not paid, could reach 50,000 euros.

Additional reporting by Giuseppe Fonte, Crispian Balmer, Gus Trompiz and Douglas Busvine; Writing by Stephen Jewkes; Editing by Robert Birsel and Hugh Lawson