A Maltese special operations team on Thursday boarded a tanker that had been hijacked by migrants rescued at sea, and returned control to the captain, before escorting it to a Maltese port.
Armed military personnel stood guard on the ship’s deck, and a dozen or so migrants were also visible, as the vessel docked at Boiler Wharf in the city of Senglea. Several police vans were lined up on shore to take custody of the migrants for investigation.
Authorities in Italy and Malta on Wednesday said that the group had hijacked the Turkish oil tanker El Hiblu 1 after it rescued them in the Mediterranean Sea, and forced the crew to put the Libya-bound vessel on a course north toward Europe.
Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, said the ship had rescued about 120 people and described what happened as “the first act of piracy on the high seas with migrants” as the alleged hijackers. Malta has put the number of migrants rescued at 108.
The ship had been heading toward Italy’s southernmost island of Lampedusa and the island of Malta when Maltese forces intercepted it.
Maltese armed forces established communications with the captain while the ship was still 30 nautical miles off shore. The captain told Maltese armed forces he was not in control of the vessel “and that he and his crew were being forced and threatened by a number of migrants to proceed to Malta.” A patrol vessel stopped the tanker from entering Maltese waters, they said.
The special team that restored control to the captain was backed by a patrol vessel, two fast interceptor craft and a helicopter.
There was no immediate word on the condition of El Hiblu 1’s crew.
Humanitarian organizations say that migrants are mistreated and even tortured in Libya, and have protested protocols to return migrants rescued offshore to the lawless northern African nation.
Meanwhile, both Italy and Malta have refused to open their ports to humanitarian ships that rescue migrants at sea, which has created numerous standoffs as European governments haggle over which will take them in.