A small tanker hijacked by migrants off Libya docked in Malta’s port of Valletta yesterday after Maltese special forces took control of the vessel, witnesses said.
Cargo ship Elhiblu 1 had picked up 108 migrants stranded at sea on Wednesday, some of whom then hijacked the vessel when it became clear that it planned to take them back to Libya.
Police awaiting the vessel at the port arrested five men and disembarked the remainder of the migrants, including at least 19 women and 12 children, on to buses, a reporter at the scene said.
The migrants, whose nationalities are not known, looked exhausted and some of the younger children were carried off the boat by police officers.
Malta’s armed forces said a special operations team backed by fast interceptors craft and a helicopter had taken control of the ship and that it was headed for Valletta.
“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,” the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) said.
“We do not shirk responsibility, despite our size. We will now follow all international rules accordingly,” said Joseph Muscat, Malta’s prime minister. Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, the hardline deputy prime minister of Italy, had called the migrants “pirates” and vowed that they would not be allowed to land on Italian soil.
“Immigration is managed by criminals and should be blocked by any legal means necessary,” he said.
EU states have been at loggerheads over migration since a spike in Mediterranean arrivals caught the bloc by surprise in 2015, stretching social and security services and fuelling support for far-right, nationalist and populist groups.
Sea arrivals have fallen from more than a million in the peak year to some 140,000 people last year, according to UN data. But political tensions around migration run high in the EU, especially ahead of European Parliament elections in May.
Under the influence of hardline Mr Salvini, Italy has moved to shut its ports to people saved in the sea by EU ships patrolling the Mediterranean for migrants, demanding that other EU states also host the new arrivals. Otherwise, Rome has threatened to pull the plug on the operation in the Mediterranean, where the United Nations says nearly 2,300 people died last year trying to reach Europe.
The EU agreed this week to extend its Mediterranean naval mission for six months beyond the end of March – but only for air patrols and training of the Libyan coast guard.