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Authorities in Italy and Malta on Wednesday said that the group had hijacked the vessel after it rescued them in the Mediterranean, and forced the crew to put the Libya-bound vessel on a course north toward Europe.
Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, said the ship had rescued about 120 people and described what happened as “the first act of piracy on the high seas with migrants” as the alleged hijackers. Malta has put the number of migrants rescued at 108.
“We do not shirk responsibility despite our size,” he said, pledging to follow international rules.
The ship had been heading toward Italy’s southernmost island of Lampedusa and the island nation of Malta when Maltese forces intercepted it.
Maltese armed forces established communications with the captain while the ship was still 30 nautical miles off shore. The captain said 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 armed forces said. No details were given of what force and threats were used.
The special team that restored control to the captain was backed by a patrol vessel, two fast interceptor craft and a helicopter.
There was no immediate word on the condition of El Hiblu 1′s crew.
While Italy’s interior minister called the hijacking an act of piracy, the humanitarian group Sea Watch disputed that term, saying the actions “were in self-defense against the deadly consequences forced upon them by Europe’s inhumane border policy.”