Maltese armed forces have taken control of a merchant ship that was reportedly hijacked by migrants rescued off the coast of Libya.
Italian and Maltese media reported that Elhiblu 1, a commercial tanker registered in Turkey, had rescued around 120 people in Libyan waters. However, the migrants are then believed to have hijacked the ship after they learned that they were being returned to Libya rather than brought to the European mainland, The Guardian reports.
Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini, renowned for his hard-line stance against illegal migration, immediately pledged to block any attempts by the boat to dock in Italy, alleging that the Elhiblu 1 had “suddenly changed course” around six nautical miles (11.1km) from the Libyan coast and begun heading north.
Salvini used his Facebook page to post a strongly worded rebuke to the migrants, saying: “These are not migrants in distress, they are pirates. They will only see Italy through a telescope.”
The Guardian adds that Salvini told one reporter sarcastically: “Poor castaways, who hijack a merchant ship that saved them because they want to decide the route of the cruise.”
The BBC reports that the Maltese Armed Forces said in a statement that they had been in communication with the captain, who was not in control of the vessel, and was being forced to head for Malta.
According to local paper MaltaToday, the tanker has now docked at Boiler Wharf in Valletta, the country’s capital, and 108 people have been taken off the ship, including the alleged hijackers. “Four men, believed to have been behind the ship’s takeover, have been arrested. They were seen handcuffed and escorted away in a police van.”
In a Twitter post, Doctors Without Borders described the situation as “desperate and dangerous”, saying it highlighted “the broken system at sea and the despair of vulnerable people”.