A small tanker hijacked by migrants off Libya docked in Malta’s Valletta port after Maltese Special Forces took control of the vessel, Reuters witnesses said.
Cargo ship Elhiblu 1 picked up 108 migrants at sea on Wednesday, some of who then hijacked the vessel when it became clear it planned to return to Libya.
Police awaiting the vessel at the port arrested five men and disembarked the remaining migrants, including at least 19 women and 12 children, onto buses. The migrants, whose nationalities are not known, looked exhausted and some younger children were carried off the boat by police officers.
Malta’s armed forces said a special operations team backed by fast interceptor craft and a helicopter took control of the ship headed for Valletta.
“The captain repeatedly stated he was not in control and he and his crew were being forced and threatened by migrants to proceed to Malta,” the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) said in a statement.
Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini welcomed Malta’s intervention. A day earlier, Salvini, who leads the ruling anti-migrant League party, said Italy would not open its ports to “criminals” who committed piracy.
“Malta’s military intervention is good. What happened is proof immigration is managed by criminals and must be blocked by any legal means necessary,” Salvini said in a statement.
EU states are 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. Political tensions around migration run high in the EU, especially ahead of European Parliament election in May.
Maltese officials said most of the ship’s crew was from Turkey. The vessel is registered in Palau, according to Maltese media.
Under the influence of Salvini, Italy moved to shut its ports to people rescued by European Union ships patrolling the Mediterranean, demanding other EU states host the new arrivals.
Rome threatened to pull the plug on the operation in the Mediterranean, where the United Nations says nearly 2,300 people perished last year trying to reach Europe.
After much wrangling, the EU agreed this week to extend its Mediterranean naval mission Operation Sophia for six months beyond the end of March – but only for air patrols and training the Libyan coast guard.