Five men were arrested Thursday after Maltese armed forces took control of a tanker that was hijacked by migrants off Libya and the ship docked in Malta.
The Palau-flagged tanker Elhiblu I had picked up 108 migrants including women and children on Tuesday evening and then headed back to Tripoli.
But six nautical miles from port the ship suddenly changed course and headed north toward Europe.
Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said Wednesday the vessel had been hijacked and vowed that the migrants would not be allowed to disembark in Italy.
The 52-metre (170-foot) tanker was about 30 nautical miles from Malta when the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) established communications with the captain.
‘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 AFM said in a statement on Thursday morning.
‘AFM Patrol Vessel P21 stopped the tanker from entering Maltese territorial waters.
‘An AFM Special Operations Unit team was dispatched to board and secure the vessel in order to hand over control of the ship to the captain.’
Escorted by the Maltese navy, the tanker arrived in the port of Valletta around 8:30 am (0730 GMT).
Five men suspected of having been the leaders of the hijacking were arrested, handcuffed and taken away in a police van.
The women and children disembarked next, followed by the other men, many of whom appeared physically very weak.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat commented that his country does ‘not shirk responsibility despite our size,’ Malta being the smallest EU country of around 450,000 people.
‘We will now follow all international rules accordingly,’ he added.
- 'People are very upset' -
Both before and after the hijacking, the German charity Sea-Eye, whose ship Alan Kurdi was in the rescue zone off Libya, said it had overheard radio messages between a European military aircraft and the captain of the tanker.
‘The captain of the ship rescued the people and requested assistance. He said unequivocally on the radio that people are very upset and do not want to be brought back to Libya,’ Sea-Eye said in a statement.
‘Tripoli, however, was the destination port of the cargo ship.’
Migrants in chaos-wracked Libya face trafficking, kidnap, torture and rape, according to the United Nations and aid groups.
Following Rome's increasingly tough anti-migrant stance, vessels that pick up migrants making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean increasingly return them to Libya.
Boatloads of rescued migrants have in recent months refused to disembark in Libya, prompting the authorities there to use force.
The UNHCR's special envoy for the central Mediterranean, Vincent Cochetel, tweeted Thursday that the ‘safety of crews (is) as important as safety of human beings fleeing a hellish situation & not wanting to return there.
‘With a robust rescue at sea capacity & predictable disembarkation on both sides of the Med, this would not have happened.’
The European Union announced on Wednesday it will suspend ship patrols that have rescued tens of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean and brought them to Italy, in the face of deep resistance from Rome's populist government.
Migrant arrivals from North Africa and the Middle East have been sharply reduced since a 2015 peak when Europe faced its worst migration crisis since World War II.
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