The captain of a German aid ship was arrested after the vessel docked without permission at a tiny Mediterranean island, ramming an Italian border police motorboat blocking its way.
Forty migrants stepped on to Italian soil on from the ship which had rescued them some two weeks earlier.
Italy’s anti-migrant interior minister, Matteo Salvini, had refused to let them disembark on Lampedusa island until other European Union countries agreed to take in the asylum-seekers.
The joyful migrants hugged the crew and kissed the dock upon arrival, after 17 days at sea.
After five countries offered on Friday to take in the migrants, but still without any disembarkation permission, the Dutch-flagged Sea-Watch 3’s captain, Carola Rackete, steered her rescue vessel toward Lampedusa’s dock before dawn on Saturday, hitting the much smaller motorboat from the border protection force.
She was immediately taken into custody.
Mr Salvini called her action’s “incredible”.
“I have asked for the arrest of an outlaw who put at risk” the lives of the border police on the motorboat, he told RAI state radio.
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.
“She enforced the rights of the rescued people to be disembarked to a place of safety,” Sea-Watch said in a statement.
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.