German captain becomes anti-populist heroine in Italy migrant standoff

Carola Rackete, captain of rescue ship Sea-Watch 3, speaks to the media as the ship remains blocked one mile outside the port of Lampedusa, Italy. (Reuters)
Updated 28 June 2019
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German captain becomes anti-populist heroine in Italy migrant standoff

  • After two weeks at sea, the dreadlocked 31-year-old, Carola Rackete has become a symbol of defiance for challenging the authority of minister Matteo Salvini
  • Rackete, a conservationist who has served on cruise ships and on a Greenpeace vessel in the past, has drawn strong support from Italy’s pro-immigration opposition parties

ROME: The young German captain of a migrant-rescue ship stranded off Italy dismissed threats of arrest and personal criticism from the country’s far right interior minister on Friday, saying her main priority was the safety of 40 rescued Africans.
After two weeks at sea, the dreadlocked 31-year-old, Carola Rackete has become a symbol of defiance for challenging the authority of minister Matteo Salvini, known as “Il Capitano” at home for closing ports to non-government rescue ships.
Speaking to reporters from her ship, the Sea Watch, via a Skype connection, Rackete said she was forced to enter Italian waters due to the worsening condition of the migrants plucked by her crew from international seas off Libya on June 12.
“The need which we have on board is psychological...The necessity to go into port is to prevent any harm or any self-harm which people might be contemplating,” she said.
Rackete, a conservationist who has served on cruise ships and on a Greenpeace vessel in the past, has drawn strong support from Italy’s pro-immigration opposition parties and also felt the sting of Salvini’s ever-busy Twitter account.
She says she now devotes her time to rescuing migrants as a reaction to her privileged upbringing.
“My life was easy...I am white, German, born in a rich country and with the right passport,” she said in comments provided by Germany’s Sea Watch, a charity that has been running rescue operations in the Mediterranean since 2014.
“When I realized it, I felt a moral obligation to help those who did not have the same opportunities as me.”
In a stream of tweets, the latest on Friday, Salvini has called her a pirate and outlaw, and drawn attention to her motivation for captaining a rescue vessel.
“The lady has said ‘I have to volunteer because I was born white, rich and German’. But not everybody who is white, rich and German have to come and break Italy’s balls. Help the kids in Germany!“
On Friday, Salvini also compared her with an earlier rescue volunteer from another charity, a man who sported a red mohawk and was reported to have called the minister a “fascist.”
Salvini says he will only allow Rackete to dock when other EU states agree to immediately take the migrants once ashore, and even then Italian authorities would seize the ship and prosecute its captain for assisting people-smugglers.
However, a European Commission official was quoted by Italian news agency AGI on Friday as saying the allocation of migrants among EU nations needed to be worked out and that in the meantime the ship must be allowed to dock.
After waiting in international waters for an invitation from Italy or another EU state to accept the Sea Watch, Rackete decided this week to sail for the southern Italian island of Lampedusa but was blocked by Italian government vessels.
On board the ship, sitting off Lampedusa, Rackete responded sharply when asked to comment on Salvini’s criticisms.
“To be honest I haven’t read the comments, I really don’t have time. I have 40 people to take care of ... Mister Salvini might just get in line.”
Rackete is already under investigation for breaking Italy’s beefed up laws against non-government rescue ships. A prosecutor in southern Italy added that it was a formality once the Sea Watch had entered Italian waters.
Sea Watch spokesman Ruben Neugebauer said the group hoped Rackete would be allowed to dock later on Friday or Saturday and that it was a disgrace for Europe that it was taking so long.
“We are really proud of our captain that doesn’t hesitate to even take personal consequences for doing exactly the right thing, for following the law of the sea and for bringing these people to safety,” Neugebauer told Reuters TV in Berlin.
Sea Watch asked the European Court of Human Rights to force Italian authorities to allow the ship to dock, but the request was rejected. Instead, the court ruled that Italy should provide all necessary assistance to those aboard.
In a tweet on Friday, Rackete said she was ready to face the consequences of Italian law. Once informed that she was under investigation, she tweeted: “I will deal with everything with the support of lawyers and Sea Watch, now I just want people to be put ashore.”


Firefighters battle wildfire in Portugal, 39 people hurt

A villager tries to extinguish a wildfire at the village of Chaveira, near Macao, in central Portugal on Monday, July 22, 2019. (AP)
Updated 2 min 52 sec ago
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Firefighters battle wildfire in Portugal, 39 people hurt

  • By evening, the fire was only 70% under control because of the strong winds and high temperatures, Civil Protection commander Pedro Nunes said, adding there were currently no homes or villages at risk

VILA DE REI/MACAO, Portugal: After more than 50 hours, firefighters were still battling a wildfire in central Portugal late on Monday, as villagers and local authorities blamed a lack of resources and government inaction for the damage caused by the flames.
So far, 39 people had been injured, including one who was in serious condition. Portugal’s Civil Protection department said some villagers had been evacuated as a precaution and houses had been destroyed.
The fire was small in comparison with a massive blaze that hit the same region in June 2017, killing 64 people and burning about 55,000 hectares (136,000 acres) in a few days. That was the worst disaster in modern Portuguese history.
Data from the European Union fire-mapping service showed about 8,500 hectares (21,000 acres) burned over the weekend.
Civil Protection said earlier on Monday that the fire, which broke out on Saturday afternoon, was 90% under control, but warned that the remaining blazes required “a lot of attention” as the winds whipped up later in the day, fanning the flames in tinder-dry conditions.
By evening, the fire was only 70% under control because of the strong winds and high temperatures, Civil Protection commander Pedro Nunes said, adding there were currently no homes or villages at risk.
“The worst-case scenario happened,” said Nunes. He said firefighters would adopt techniques overnight to put out the flames, including using four bulldozers provided by the armed forces.
Even though humidity is expected to remain low, the wind is set to lose strength in the early hours of Tuesday, which could help firefighters end the wildfire, Nunes added.
Covered in eucalyptus and pine trees, central Portugal is frequently hit by summer blazes, with hilly terrain making it especially difficult for firefighters to reach.

’THERE WAS NO ONE’
Villagers, as well as authorities in Macao and Vila de Rei, areas in the heart of the fire zone, said there were not enough firefighters and resources to combat the flames.
Sheep farmer Joaquim Ribeiro told Reuters there were no firefighters when the blaze arrived at his village in Macao, forcing him to transfer his animals elsewhere. “It was pandemonium.”
Another sheep farmer, Fernando Cardoso, said he rushed to a nearby fire station as the flames approached his village but the firefighters told him they could not help until given the green light.
“The fire appeared out of nowhere,” he said. “When we got here, there were flames everywhere, no place to turn, no firefighters, there was no one.”
Local authorities have also pointed the finger at Portugal’s Socialist government, led by Prime Minister Antonio Costa.
Speaking to Lusa news agency, the deputy mayor of Vila de Rei, Paulo Cesar, accused the government of not being able to prevent wildfires.
“The municipality is fed up with these successive fires linked to criminal activity and is fed up of seeing the state fail again,” he said.
Asked by reporters about the complaints, Costa said the mayors were “primarily responsible” for protecting their own municipalities from wildfires through “proper management of their territory.”
Internal Administration Minister Eduardo Cabrita said police had opened an investigation into the fires. Portugal’s judiciary police have collected evidence and artifacts that could be related to the fires’ origin, an official told Lusa news agency.
In a statement, police said a 55-year-old man was detained on suspicion of starting a blaze in the Portuguese district of Castelo Branco. But a police source, quoted by Portuguese newspaper Observador, said the detention was not related to the fires in question.
The police did not reply to a Reuters request for comment.
Civil Protection said 1,079 firefighters were on the ground, backed up by 347 firefighting vehicles.
Spain said late on Monday that it was sending two aircraft to help tackle the fires in Portugal.