Maltese special forces have seized a Turkish oil tanker, El Hibu 1, which had been hijacked by the very migrants it stopped to rescue in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya.
Five of the migrants have been arrested, and are accused of overpowering the vessel's 12-man crew - forcing the oil tanker's captain to cede control "through coercive action," according to the Telegraph, citing Maltese government sources.
77 of the 108 migrants - or 71% - were men, who were traveling with 19 women and 12 children.
"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 tanker was prevented from entering Maltese waters by a Maltese patrol vessel, after which a special forces unit was dispatched to board the tanker and regain control. The operation was backed up by a patrol vessel, a helicopter and two fast interceptor craft.
"The tanker, her crew and all migrants are being escorted by the Armed Forces of Malta to Boiler Wharf (in Valletta) to be handed over to the police for further investigations," said Maltese authorities.
Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini called the migrants "pirates" - calling the hijacking "the first act of piracy on the high seas with migrants."
"They are not shipwrecked migrants but pirates. They should know that they will only see Italy with a telescope," said Salvini, adding "I tell the pirates, forget Italy."
Armed military personnel could be seen onboard the tanker when it arrived in Malta's capital of Valletta on Thursday morning, reports Sky, while the Telegraph adds that the troops had established communications with the captain while the ship was approximately six nautical miles offshore.
Human rights groups have defended the hijacking, saying that the refugees were simply trying to escape the "hell" of detention camps in Libya.
Refugees and migrants say they are beaten, raped and even sold as slaves in Libya.
They are tortured by smuggling gangs in order to extort more money from their families back home.
“No state can expel or push back refugees to countries in which their lives and liberty would be under threat,” said Mediterranea Saving Lives, a humanitarian NGO.
Sending the migrants back to Libya would constitute “not just a crime but an act of inhumanity.
“The ship should be immediately assigned a safe port in a European country where these people’s human rights will be guaranteed.
“They should not be treated like ‘pirates’ or criminals, but as asylum seekers who are fleeing the hell of detention camps in Libya,” the NGO said. -Telegraph
As the Telegraph notes, the hijacking coincides with an EU decision to effectively scrap a 2015 joint naval agreement, Operation Sophia, which was tasked with reducing human trafficking and intercepting migrant boats and dinghies migrants in the Mediterranean.
Air patrols over the Mediterranean, meanwhile, will be maintained over the next six months - while there will be no rescue ships. Approximately 2,300 migrants and refugees died in 2018 while trying to cross into Europe, according to UN figures.