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The Elhiblu 1 is guided into harbour at Senglea, Malta, by the Maltese military after being hijacked by migrants. Photograph: EPA

Ship hijacked by migrants off Libya escorted to Malta

Vessel changed course after rescued migrants realised they were being taken back to Libya

WT24 Desk

A merchant ship hijacked by refugees and migrants off the coast of Libya has been escorted to Malta by the country’s armed forces, The Guardian reports.

Armed military personnel stood guard on the ship’s deck and a dozen or so migrants were visible as the Elhibru 1 docked at Boiler Wharf in the city of Senglea. Several police vans were lined up on shore and four men who were believed to be suspects in commandeering the vessel were led off in handcuffs.

The ship rescued about 108 people in the Mediterranean on Wednesday andchanged course towards Europe after the migrants realised they were being taken back to Libya. People trying to make it to Europe from Africa face trafficking, kidnap, torture and rape in Libya, according to the United Nations and aid groups.Advertisement

The Maltese armed forces (AFM) said contact was made with the Elhibru 1 when it was about 30 nautical miles away from Malta.

“The captain repeatedly stated that 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,” AFM said in statement.

A patrol vessel stopped the tanker from entering Maltese territorial waters, and a special operations unit was dispatched to board and secure the tanker, AFM added. Control of the ship was then handed back to the captain and it was escorted to Senglea.

Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, said on Twitter the country’s armed forces had conducted a “sensitive operation on high seas”. “We do not shirk responsibility despite our size,” he said, pledging to follow international rules.

On Wednesday, Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and interior minister, had vowed to block the ship from arriving in Italy after receiving news of the hijacking. “These are not migrants in distress, they are pirates. They will only see Italy through a telescope,” he said.

The humanitarian group SeaWatch disputed the term “pirates”, and said the migrants’ actions “were in self-defence against the deadly consequences forced upon them by Europe’s inhumane border policy”.

Salvini, who is also the leader of the far-right League party, has been at the centre of several international standoffs over his refusal to let humanitarian ships dock in Italy.

Last week, Italy’s senate rejected a request by prosecutors to investigate him for kidnapping over a case in August when he blocked an Italian coastguard ship with 150 people onboard for almost a week off Sicily before finally letting it dock.

This week, Italian authorities released the Mare Jonio charity rescue ship, which was seized in March after it defied the government’s order not to bring migrants to Italy.

Giorgia Linardi, a SeaWatch spokeswoman, told Italian radio: “We can’t just stare at the migrants from planes while they are dying at sea. We are committing odious crimes against asylum seekers.”

On Wednesday, the European Union said it would stop its sea patrols in the Mediterranean, which have rescued thousands of refugees and migrants, after the Italian government threatened to veto the EU’s entire operation in the waters.

Operation Sophia, which has two vessels and five planes and helicopters, was set up in 2015 to prevent loss of life at sea in a year when 3,771 people died or went missing attempting to reach Europe in rickety boats.

The suspension of sea patrols in central Mediterranean waters will remain in place until 30 September, though air patrols will be stepped up. The mission will also continue training the Libyan coastguard – part of a controversial strategy that critics say leads to people being trapped in Libyan detention centres, where they suffer horrific abuse.

More than 80 people rescued off the Libyan coast in November and returned to the port of Misrata on a cargo ship refused to leave for more than a week and were eventually forced to disembark at gunpoint.

The number of migrant arrivals from North Africa and the Middle East has fallen sharply since a 2015 peak.Topics

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