Maltese authorities have charged three young African migrants with committing an act of terrorism by hijacking a ship that rescued them off the coast of Libya on Saturday.
Two teenagers from Guinea and one from Ivory Coast, aged 15, 16 and 19, are accused of forcing the Palau-flagged tanker Elhiblu 1 towards Malta after it picked up 108 migrants, including women and children, on Wednesday and headed towards its destination in Libya.
A Maltese special operations unit boarded the ship a day later and arrested five men suspected of leading the hijacking.
Two teenagers from Guinea and one from Ivory Coast, aged 15, 16 and 19, are accused of forcing the Palau-flagged tanker Elhiblu 1 towards Malta after it picked up 108 migrants, including women and children, on Wednesday and headed towards its destination in Libya
One of the migrants is escorted from court after pleading not guilty to charges of terrorism by hijacking
They handed control back to the captain who steered the ship to Valletta under a navy escort.
The three migrants, who were charged at a Maltese court with seizing control of the ship through the use or threat of force and intimidation, pleaded not guilty and were placed in preventive detention pending trial.
They face prison terms of between seven and 30 years if convicted.
The ship’s captain told Maltese media the hijackers ‘were desperate and absolutely did not want to return to Libya.
‘Panic and confusion erupted when the migrants understood that we were going back,’ to a country where migrants face trafficking, kidnap, torture and rape according to the United Nations and aid groups.
The ship’s captain told Maltese media the hijackers ‘were desperate and absolutely did not want to return to Libya. There were 108 migrants on board the Elhiblu 1, including women and children
Following Italy’s increasingly tough anti-migrant stance, vessels that pick up migrants crossing the Mediterranean increasingly return them to Libya.
Boatloads of rescued migrants have in recent months refused to disembark there however, prompting local authorities to use force.
Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini had earlier said the ship, an 846-tonne tanker, had been bound for Libya after picking up the migrants but had been taken over and turned towards Europe.
Salvini, a hardliner who has repeatedly refused entry to Mediterranean migrants, claimed the ship with 108 migrants on board was heading for Malta or the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Following Italy’s increasingly tough anti-migrant stance, vessels that pick up migrants crossing the Mediterranean increasingly return them to Libya
A military boat (left) escorts the El Hiblu into Malta’s Grand Port after it was seized
The soldiers handed control of the vessel back to its captain who sailed it to the Grand Harbour in Valletta, Malta, where the migrants were due to be handed to police
Maltese special forces seized control of a tanker that had been hijacked by migrants in the Mediterranean after it stopped to rescue them near the Libyan coast
Both countries said El Hiblu 1 would not be allowed to enter their national waters.
‘We received reports of a pirated ship heading towards Malta or Lampedusa (off Sicily) and we’re monitoring the situation,’ a Maltese coastguard spokesman told AFP.
Refusing to let the migrants into Italy, Salvini tweeted: ‘They’re not shipwrecked, they’re pirates.
‘They should know that they will only see Italy with a telescope.’
Women and children were pictured being led off the boat after it arrived in Malta on Thursday morning
El Hiblu 1 arrives in Senglea, in Valletta’s Grand Harbour, in the early hours of Thursday after being seized by Maltese troops
The Italian news agency ANSA reported that Salvini said: ‘It would be the first act of piracy on the high seas, with migrants who have hijacked a ship that had reached six nautical miles [seven miles] off the Libyan coast.’
The agency reports that the migrants had realised they were returning towards Tripoli and had threatened the freighter’s commander and crew.
The reported line echoes Salvini’s language last year when he said migrants would only see the country ‘on a postcard’.
The 46-year-old has spearheaded the migration crackdown since he became interior minister and deputy PM last year.
Several young children were pictured being carried off the boat, though it was not immediately clear how many people were actually on board
The captain of the boat (pictured centre, wearing glasses) was also seen disembarking from the vessel along with members of his crew
He has turned away rescue ships operated by foreign NGOs, such as the Aquarius, which was left stranded with 630 migrants last June after being refused entry to Italy.
Following Rome’s increasingly tough anti-migrant stance, boats that pick up migrants making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean increasingly return them to Libya.
Several boatloads of migrants rescued in recent months have refused to disembark in Libya, prompting the authorities there to use force.
Migrant arrivals from North Africa and the Middle East have been sharply reduced since a 2015 peak when Europe faced its worst migration crisis since World War II.
Members of the Maltese special forces team which seized the boat guard the migrant arrivals
A female migrant waits to be allowed off the boat after it was diverted from Libya back to Europe by hijackers who took control
Male migrants wait to be escorted off the tanker after it docked in Valletta under armed guard
A woman and her son are seen aboard tanker El Hiblu as they wait to disembark
Salvini has accused the rescue missions of playing into the hands of people smugglers.
He was sworn in after striking a deal to form a government with the Five Star Movement, an agreement that brought Italy a populist government after three months of post-election deadlock.
On Monday Salvini vowed to ‘change Europe’ after his League party – which he transformed into a national force – won a regional election.
Spain’s socialist PM Pedro Sanchez, who also came to power last year, has taken a more liberal approach.
The ship was on its way to Tripoli, the capital of Lybia, from Turkey, but it changed its direction and started heading north
Survivors reveal ‘unbelievable’ horrors faced by refugees in Libya
- A new study carried out by the Women’s Refugee Commission has revealed that migrants travelling to Europe are being raped and tortured
- Smugglers torture migrants and film the scene on Skype to extract ransom money from their families
- Migrants told horror stories, including men having their genitals cut off and mass sexual abuse
- It was reported that men and women are forced to rape others, boys have to rape their sisters and women are abused and raped until they bleed to death
- Men face abuse nearly as regularly as women, according to the new study
- A survivor from Gambia said: ‘If someone had told me this before, I would never have believed it. You can only believe it if you have seen it with your own eyes.’
- Sarah Chynoweth, the study’s lead researcher, said: ‘If a man tries to escape, all other men are forced to rape him. People are regularly punished, forced into submission and controlled.’
- Previous studies have found that nearly all women who cross from North Africa have been raped or sexually abused along the journey
- The area around Bani Walid is notorious for its clandestine prisons, where migrants are detained while smugglers try to extract payments from them before they are able to continue their journey
- Last May, more than 100 migrants and refugees broke out from one of the lockups, fleeing under their captors’ gunfire
- 33 per cent of sexual assault survivors who came forward last year on the Aquarius were male, compared with just three per cent in 2017