A merchant ship has been hijacked by migrants after it rescued them in the Mediterranean, according to reports in Italy.
Interior minister Matteo Salvini claimed the ship, a 846-ton tanker named El Hiblu 1, had been bound for Libya after picking up the migrants but had been taken over and turned towards Europe.
El Hiblu 1 is registered in the Republic of Palau, an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean.
The ship was on its way to Tripoli, the capital of Lybia, from Turkey, but was diverted on Tuesday to rescue some migrants off the coast of Lybia.
A merchant ship has been hijacked by migrants after it rescued them in the Mediterranean, interior minister Matteo Salvini (pictured today in Rome) has claimed
Salvini, a hardliner who has repeatedly refused entry to Mediterranean migrants, claimed the ship with 108 migrants on board was now heading for Malta or the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Both countries said El Hiblu 1 would not be allowed to enter their national waters.
At 4pm, there had been no communication from the tanker for 16 hours, Maritime and Crimean Shipping News reported.
Refusing to let the migrants into Italy, Salvini said: ‘They should know that they will only see Italy with a telescope’, according to news agency ANSA.
He reportedly went on: ‘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 ship was said to be Elhiblu 1, described on tracking websites as a tanker sailing under the flag of Turkey.
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.
Pictured: The Aquarius rescue vessel which was turned away by Salvini last June in the populist government’s crackdown on Mediterranean crossings
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.
Salvini has accused the rescue missions of playing into the hands of people smugglers.
He was sworn in after striking 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.