Carola Rackete, the 31-year-old Sea-Watch 3 captain, is escorted off the ship by police and taken away for questioning, in Lampedusa, Italy June 29, 2019.
FILE - Carola Rackete, the 31-year-old Sea-Watch 3 captain, is escorted off the ship by police and taken away for questioning, in Lampedusa, Italy, June 29, 2019. (Reuters)

Thousands of people rallied to the support of a German captain of a migrant rescue ship who was arrested after she defied orders to stay out of Italian waters.

Carola Rackete remained under house arrest Sunday 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.

The Sea-Watch 3 picked up the migrants adrift in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya on June 12 and had remained on open waters after being denied entry by several European countries.

On Wednesday, Rackete ignored Italian warnings and headed to Lampedusa island.

The captain "had no intention of hurting anyone'' and only wanted to get her passengers to land, Italian lawyer Salvatore Tesoriero said.

Two German radio personalities appealed for donations for Rackete. In just over 24 hours, some 20,000 people had donated more than $745,000.

Rackete also received the support of German leaders. "Italy is at the heart of the European Union, a founding state of the European Union,'' President Frank-Walter Steinmeier told German public broadcaster ZDF." And that's why we can expect a country like Italy to deal with such a case differently.''

Italy's anti-immigration Interior Minister Matteo Salvini was quick to respond. "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 hurt when the Sea-Watch 3 collided with the police boat.

Salvini has promised fines, arrests and seizures for any vessel that enters Italian waters without authorization. "We will use every democratic means to stop this mockery of law," Salvini said. "Italy cannot be the landing spot for anyone deciding to unload human beings."

He has repeatedly accused charity rescuers of being complicit with people smugglers by waiting off the Libyan coast to pick up migrants from unseaworthy vessels that couldn't make it all the way to Europe.  

Until recently, Italy had been the preferred landing spot for migrants fleeing North Africa for Europe. But in June 2018, the far-right government closed its ports to migrant rescue vessels.

Migrant arrivals to Italy have plummeted since Salvini took office a year ago. So far this year, just 2,456 have arrived across the Mediterranean, according to official data, down 85% for the same period in 2018 and down 96% from 2017 levels.