Five migrants who allegedly led the hijacking of a tanker in the Mediterranean to avoid being returned to Libya were arrested in Malta on Thursday after special forces stormed the vessel to take back control.
The five men, some of whom were led off the merchant vessel in plastic handcuffs, were among 108 asylum seekers who were rescued by the El Hiblu 1 tanker north of Libya on Tuesday.
The tanker was ordered by Libyan authorities to take the migrants to Tripoli, but they allegedly subjected the 12-man crew to physical threats and forced the vessel to sail north instead, towards Europe.
Migrants in Libya are held in horrific conditions and are often subjected to beatings, torture and rape, according to the UN and humanitarian agencies.
The Maltese military intervened in the early hours of Thursday, with armed commandos boarding the tanker in an operation that involved Maltese naval vessels and helicopters.
Maltese authorities established communications with the captain of the 170ft-long oil tanker when it was about 30 nautical miles away from Malta and proceeding towards the island.
“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 authorities said.
The tanker was escorted by navy vessels to Valletta, Malta’s capital, where the five alleged ringleaders were arrested and taken away for questioning.
They are likely to be charged with “illegally forcing the captain of the ship to hand over control through coercive action and changing its course,” Maltese government sources said.
No one was injured during the high seas drama, but the outnumbered crew said they were threatened with assault unless they followed orders.
The rescued migrants consisted of 77 men, 19 women and 12 children.
“We do not shirk responsibility, despite our size. We will now follow all international rules accordingly,” said Joseph Muscat, Malta’s prime minister.
Matteo Salvini, the hardline deputy prime minister of Italy, had called the migrants “pirates” and vowed that they would not be allowed to land on Italian soil.