Alleged migrant hijackers taken off tanker in handcuffs in Malta

A Maltese special operations team boarded a tanker and took back control of it Thursday after the ship was hijacked by migrants it had rescued at sea. Italy's hard-line interior minister described the migrants as pirates, but aid groups said they acted in self-defence.

Italian politician says it's the 1st act of piracy on the high seas involving migrants

A migrant child is carried off the merchant ship Elhiblu 1, in Senglea, in Valletta's Grand Harbour, Malta, on Thursday. (Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

A Maltese special operations team boarded a tanker and took back control of it Thursday after the ship was hijacked by migrants it had rescued at sea. Italy's hard-line interior minister described the migrants as pirates, but aid groups said they acted in self-defence, blaming instead the European Union's policy of sending migrants back to lawless Libya.

Armed military personnel stood guard on the ship's deck and a dozen or so migrants were also visible as the Turkish oil tanker El Hiblu 1 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, and five migrants were led off the ship in handcuffs.

In all, the tanker had rescued 100 people — 38 men, 15 women and 47 claiming to be minors, Malta officials said. One pregnant woman and one child were being treated at a hospital as a precaution.

Authorities in Italy and Malta on Wednesday said the group had hijacked the vessel after it rescued them in the Mediterranean Sea, and forced the crew to put the Libya-bound vessel on a course north toward Europe.

Salah al-Hiblu, the owner of a tanker that was temporarily hijacked by migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, says his brother, the tanker's captain, was asked to rescue the migrants by the Libyan coast guard.

Speaking Thursday from Tripoli, the Libyan capital, he said the tanker was coming in empty from Turkey and heading to Tripoli.

He received a call Wednesday from the Libyan coast guard asking him to contact his brother Nader to save migrants who were in trouble in the Mediterranean.

Al-Hiblu said the tanker kept heading to Tripoli when the migrants "used force" against his brother and told him either to go to Italy or Malta. He says "the migrants told him we are not leaving or going back to Libya. We already left Libya to go to Europe."

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said on Twitter that the nation'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.

A Maltese special forces soldier is seen on the merchant ship Elhiblu 1 after it arrived in Senglea. (Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

The ship had been heading toward Italy's southernmost island of Lampedusa and the island nation 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 said 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 said.

No details were given of what force or threats were used, and there was no immediate word on the condition of El Hiblu 1's crew. But a military official not authorized to speak to the media said the migrants did not have weapons but that the captain and crew were outnumbered and forced to surrender.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini described the takeover as "the first act of piracy on the high seas with migrants" as the alleged hijackers. Salvini, who insisted the ship would not be allowed to dock in Italy, on Thursday praised the Malta's interception.

"Immigration is managed by criminals and should be blocked by any legal means necessary," Salvini was quoted as saying by the Italian news agency ANSA.

Next steps for migrants unclear

Humanitarian organizations strongly object to that characterization and say migrants are mistreated and even tortured in Libya, and have protested protocols to return migrants rescued offshore to the lawless northern African nation. 

The aid group Sea Watch said the migrants' actions "were in self-defence against the deadly consequences forced upon them by Europe's inhumane border policy."


Last year, 2,299 migrants died at sea while trying to reach Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration. So far this year, 289 have died.

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 who will take them in.

A private group that operates a rescue ship and monitors how governments treat migrants, Mediterranea, urged compassion for the group on the hijacked vessel and said it hoped European countries would act "in the name of fundamental rights, remembering that we are dealing with human beings fleeing hell."

Mass migration to Europe has dropped sharply since 2015, when the continent received one million refugees and migrants from countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. The surge created a humanitarian crisis in which desperate travellers frequently drowned and leading arrival spots such as Italy and Greece struggled to house large numbers of asylum seekers.

Along with the dangerous sea journey itself, those who attempt to cross the Mediterranean risk being stopped by Libya's coast guard and held in Libyan detention centres that human rights groups have described as bleak places where migrants allegedly suffer routine abuse.

European Union members "alert the Libyan coast guard when refugees and migrants are spotted at sea so they can be taken back to Libya, despite knowing that people there are arbitrarily detained and exposed to widespread torture, rape, killings and exploitation," said Matteo de Bellis, an international migration researcher for Amnesty International.

EU member countries, responding to domestic opposition to welcoming immigrants, have decided to significantly downscale an EU operation in the Mediterranean, and have decided in principle to withdraw their ships, which would mean continuing the mission with air surveillance only. A formal decision has to be made by Sunday, when the mission mandate expires.

"This shameful decision has nothing to do with the needs of people who risk their lives at sea, but everything to do with the inability of European governments to agree on a way to share responsibility for them," de Bellis said.

Commercial ships have been increasingly caught between European governments hostile to taking in new migrants and the international maritime law's obligation to save people at sea.

Last November, dozens of migrants of a variety of nationalities seized control of a container ship that had picked them up in the Mediterranean, barricading themselves inside and refusing to disembark in the Libyan port of Misrata. After 10 days, Libyan authorities forcibly removed them from the ship and brought them to a detention centre.

During the standoff, several migrants on the vessel told the AP that six commercial ships had seen their rickety boat foundering but passed them by before they were picked up by the seventh.