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Rescue ship captain held in Italy attracts donors, defenders

BERLIN — High-level support and almost three-quarters of a million dollars in donations poured in Sunday for the German captain of a migrant rescue ship who was arrested after she defied repeated orders to stay out of Italy and struck a police boat while bringing 40 people to port.

Carola Rackete remained under house arrest a day after her ship, the Sea-Watch 3, rammed the Italian border police motorboat that was blocking the entry to the port at Italy’s Lampedusa island.

Rackete, 31, “had no intention of hurting anyone” and only wanted to get her passengers to land, Italian lawyer Salvatore Tesoriero said.

The Sea-Watch 3 picked up the migrants adrift in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya on June 12 and had been in a standoff with Italian authorities for weeks before the captain decided to force the issue, reportedly saying she feared some of her passengers might harm themselves.

“Whoever saves lives isn’t a criminal,” two German TV personalities wrote in an appeal for contributions to help support Rackete and Sea-Watch, the German nonprofit group that owns the rescue ship. More than 24,000 donors responded, giving over 655,000 euros ($745,390) as of Sunday evening.

Rackete could face up to 10 years in prison, if she is convicted of resisting a warship, a charge that refers to plowing into the border police motorboat. She also could be fined up to 50,000 euros ($58,000) under a recent law designed to strengthen Italian government policies targeting private migrant rescue vessels.

The Sea-Watch 3 entered Lampedusa’s port 17 days after it picked up 53 migrants off Libya; 13 of the rescued passengers were allowed to disembark earlier for medical reasons.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier questioned Italy’s handling of the situation.

“Italy is at the heart of the European Union, a founding state of the European Union,” Steinmeier told German public broadcaster ZDF in an interview late Sunday. “And that’s why we can expect a country like Italy to deal with such a case differently.”

His comments were met with a swift retort from Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who earlier called the Sea-Watch 3 captain a “criminal” who committed an “act of war” by ignoring orders to keep out of Italy’s waters.

“We ask the German president to keep busy with what’s happening in Germany and possibly invite his fellow citizens to avoid breaking Italian laws, risking the killing of Italy’s law enforcement forces,” Salvini said in a tweet Sunday evening.

No one was injured when Sea-Watch 3 struck the border police vessel, but Italian authorities said some officers had to scramble out of the way and the motorboat’s side was damaged.

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said Rackete could have sailed to many other ports in the Mediterranean to seek permission to dock. He accused the captain of carrying out “political blackmail…using 40 people.”

Some in Germany agreed with the Italian government’s position.

Petr Bystron, a foreign policy spokesman for the far-right Alternative for Germany party, said Rackete was “a common criminal.” Speaking to German daily newspaper Welt, Bystron said she should have taken the rescued migrants to Africa or the Netherlands, since the ship sailed under the Dutch flag.

At Italy’s insistence, five fellow European Union nations including Germany said they would take the remaining 40 migrants who landed on Lampedusa.

On Sunday, another Italian coast guard boat was escorting 40 severely dehydrated migrants to tiny Lampedusa after the rescue ship of a Spanish humanitarian group spotted the migrants’ boat at sea, according to the group.

Proactiva Open Arms spokeswoman Laura Lanuza told The Associated Press that three pregnant women and four children are among the people on the migrant boat that departed Libya three days ago.

Lanuza says Malta’s coast guard was contacted but an Italian coast guard vessel arrived to escort the migrants because their boat was closer to Lampedusa than to Malta.

The governments of both Italy and Malta have repeatedly denied the rescue ships of nonprofit groups permission to port. However, the coast guards of the two countries also carry out rescues of migrants on the often unseaworthy vessels people smugglers launch from Libya.

Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.

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