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German captain who outraged Italian leader pushes limits

MILAN (AP) — Even before the 31-year-old German captain with tied-back dreadlocks and a cool, steely voice, rammed her migrant rescue ship into an Italian border police patrol boat, she had deeply angered Italy's hard-line interior minister.

Then Saturday, Carola Rackete pushed her defiance to the extreme, winding up arrested after ramming the police boat while docking at a tiny Italian island. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini thundered that she was a "criminal" who committed an "act of war" against Italy.

But ultimately, the gutsy captain of German humanitarian ship Sea-Watch 3 got her way: 40 migrants safely set foot in Italy, more than two weeks after her vessel's crew plucked them from an unseaworthy boat launched by Libya-based human traffickers.

Earlier in the week, Salvini vowed he wouldn't let any migrant disembark in Italy if rescued by private humanitarian organizations unless other European Union nations agree to take them. His populist government brands the charities whose rescue vessels ply the southern Mediterranean as do-gooders essentially fostering the traffickers' business.

Even before the drama ended, Salvini, the 46-year-old leader of the virulently anti-migrant populist League party, had already disparaged Rackete as "uppity" and as "a heroine from the left, born white, rich and German."

An experienced sailor, Rackete has commanded a handful of rescue missions for the Sea-Watch group since joining in 2016. During one of her first times at the helm, her ship picked up 45 bodies floating in the sea from a shipwreck.

Her latest mission, which culminated early Saturday with the violent approach to Lampedusa island's dock, came after the vessel rescued 53 migrants off Libya on June 12. Thirteen ailing migrants were transferred to Italy in recent days.

Rackete's explicit determination to bring the remaining 40 to Italian soil in defiance of Salvini put her on the international stage in a very personal way. She openly defied port authority orders on two successive days as she pressed on to deliver the migrants to a safe port, citing "a state of necessity" on board.

Before dawn Saturday, Rackete plowed ahead, determined not to let the customs and border police force's motorboat thwart her determination to disembark the migrants. According to Italian news reports, some of the police on the motorboat jumped onto the dock for safety, while others quickly shifted to one side to avoid injury.

In interviews, Salvini branded her an "outlaw" commanding a vessel that had plied the Mediterranean "breaking laws." As soon as the captain set foot on the dock, a customs police car whisked her off to their local station. Her lawyer, Leonardo Marino told reporters she is under investigation for alleged resistance to a war vessel. Rackete risks up to 10 years in prison if charged, tried and convicted.

A day earlier, Sicilian prosecutors had already put her under investigation for allegedly aiding illegal immigration and entering Italian waters against the orders of the Italian authorities. Speaking to reporters via Skype after entering Italian waters, she said she knew the risks.

"Keeping the people here in a type of prison, even if it's very nice, keeping theme here on board and not giving them access to a place of safety is a very, very grave thing," Rackete told reporters Thursday.

Sea-Watch spokesman Ruben Neugebauer has described Rackete as one of the organization's most experienced captains. "She is a really impressive person, always clear in her decisions," he said. Rackete spent some childhood years abroad, before returning to Germany where she graduated high school. She told Italy's La Repubblica daily that her first experiences abroad in South America made her realize how privileged she was and motivated her to give something back.

She has an undergraduate degree in nautical science from a German university and a master's degree in environmental conservation from a British university. She has previous nautical experience with a cruise company, on polar expeditions and for Greenpeace.

Leaked tapes of her radio calls pointedly disregarding orders from Italian port officials have presumably been intended to shore up Italy's case against her for not only disobeying authorities but also for flouting a government decree passed this month denying entry to Italian territorial waters on public order grounds that could see Sea-Watch slapped with a fine of up to 50,000 euros ($56,400).

Human Rights Watch has criticized the decree as violating EU law, including asylum procedures, and the charter of fundamental rights. Her actions have gained her a following on social media, with memes of the Walt Whitman poem: 'O Captain! My Captain!' An anti-fascist group has raised more than 220,000 euros (about $250,000) for any legal defense.

Rackete has expressed confidence Italian courts will ultimate vindicate her. Her lawyer, Leonardo Marino, said that a judge in Agrigento, Sicily, will hold a closed-door hearing early next week to determine if she can be released from house arrest while prosecutors pursue their investigation.

Her father, Ekkehart Rackete, a former German navy official, told Italian daily Corriere della Sera recently that his daughter speaks five languages "and knows a little Italian. Let's just hope that she won't have the chance to perfect it in some prison of yours."

Frances D'Emilio contributed from Rome.

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