Valletta: Police forces stand on the pier where the tanker is docked at Valletta’s hrbour.—AFP
Valletta: Police forces stand on the pier where the tanker is docked at Valletta’s hrbour.—AFP

VALLETTA: Five men were arrested on 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 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 8:30am.

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.

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.

Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2019