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Migrants disembark from the merchant ship El Hiblu 1, after Maltese armed forces took control of the vessel. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Hijacked captain recalls ‘horror’ in Mediterranean Sea as migrants took over ship

Libyan crew feared for their lives as rescued passengers demanded to go to Europe not Africa

WT24 Desk

Migrants who hijacked an oil tanker after it rescued them in the Mediterranean Sea seized metal objects and began smashing the ship and threatening crew members after they realised they were being returned to Libya, the ship’s captain said, AP reports.

Nader el-Hiblu, the 42-year-old Libyan captain of the El Hiblu 1 ship, said he and five other crew members feared they could be killed during the “horror” that played out at sea this week. He said the threats by rioting migrants forced him to agree to their demand that he take them to Europe, not back to Libya.

“They attacked the cockpit, heavily beating on the doors and the windows and they threatened to smash the boat,” el-Hiblu said. He spoke by phone from the ship, which is now docked in Valletta, the capital of Malta.

“They went nuts and they were screaming and shouting: ‘Go back! Go back! Go back!’” he said.

For years, the Mediterranean Sea has been a place of drama and death as desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East board unseaworthy smuggling boats with dreams of a better life in Europe.

Last year, 2,299 people died in the sea trying to head to Europe, and the dangerous journey has also killed 311 people so far this year.

The migrants revolted against heading back to lawless Libya, where aid groups say migrants are beaten, raped and tortured on a regular basis in detention camps. Some aid groups called the migrants’ actions “self-defence” against Europe’s inhumane migration policies.

Now, there are fears that some merchant ship captains might become reluctant to save migrants from sinking boats in the future if they fear they could lose control of their ships.

El-Hiblu said the drama began Tuesday afternoon when his tanker was traveling from Istanbul to Libya. He was contacted by a military aircraft flying above – though he isn’t sure if it was Maltese or Italian – alerting him of a boat with people who needed help.

He said the boat was carrying 98 men, women and children.

“I took the people in the boat and there were six who refused to jump in, fearing that I (would) take them back to Libya,” he said.

He then directed his ship to Libya, saying the migrants believed they were headed to Europe and “were relaxed and happy and did nothing throughout the journey.”

El-Hiblu said he alerted Libyan port authorities when he was nearing the coast, but help didn’t come. When the Libyan capital of Tripoli came into view, about 25 of the male migrants began their attack, he said.

“They all brought heavy metal tools and started to beat and smash the ship and threatened that they would leave the ship in pieces” if the vessel continued to Libya, he said. “It was horror. I didn’t care much about the boat, but the crew members.”

El-Hiblu called the port in Libya again and told them the crew was heading north toward Europe, saying: “They are going to kill me and kill us if we return. We are leaving.”

Libyan Coast Guard spokesman Ayoub Gassim said they sent two boats in “hot pursuit”, but the tanker was faster than their boats.

As the tanker moved north, news started spreading it was heading either toward Malta or the Italian island of Lampedusa. Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who has a strong anti-migrant stance, said Italy would not accept them.

At first, Malta also insisted it would not accept the vessel in its waters. But on Thursday morning, the Maltese armed forces stormed the vessel and detained five men suspected of leading the hijacking, taking them away in handcuffs when the ship docked in Valletta, the capital.

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