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Malta’s armed forces storm merchant ship taken over by rescued migrants

Maltese armed forces stand aboard the Turkish oil tanker El Hiblu 1, which was taken over by migrants Thursday. (Rene Rossignaud/AP)

ROME — Maltese armed forces on Thursday stormed a merchant vessel taken over by rescued migrants who were allegedly demanding to be transported to Europe, rather than back to Libya.

In what Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, described as a “sensitive operation on the high seas,” the Maltese special operations team restored control of the tanker and escorted it to port. The migrants on the El Hiblu 1 vessel would be “handed over to police for further investigations,” Malta’s government said in a statement.

Before the operation began, 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 government statement said.

The situation was a particularly volatile example of tensions in the Mediterranean, where European countries have tightened the door to migrants and curtailed rescue operations on the high seas. Nonetheless, hundreds of migrants every month attempt the journey.

Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, described the events in criminal terms, calling it a “hijacking” and the first act of “piracy” carried out by migrants. But humanitarian groups and other migration experts said the events simply showed the desperation of migrants to escape Libya, where they can be bought and sold by smugglers, detained, tortured or sold into prostitution.

Fewer migrants are making it to Europe. Here’s why.

Libya has been granted increased freedom by Italy and the European Union to patrol the Mediterranean and intercept migrants bound for Europe. Some humanitarian groups say the practice of returning migrants to Libya violates international law that entitles those rescued at sea access to a safe port. Migrants there can end up in a brutal detention system, where they face the possibility of rape, extortion and forced labor, according to the United Nations.

In earlier years of Europe’s migration crisis — when flows from the Middle East and North Africa were much higher — the Mediterranean was patrolled by Italian and European vessels, as well as by humanitarian groups, which would rescue migrants from flimsy dinghies and transport them to safety, typically to Italy. But over the past year, Italy has closed its ports to migrants rescued by humanitarian boats. And the E.U. said Wednesday that it is winding down its own maritime effort.

Migration analysts say that, as a result, a void has opened in the Mediterranean — and commercial ships are more likely to be called on to make rescues, particularly when the Libyan coast guard is not available or equipped.

Doctors Without Borders said the situation on the El Hiblu 1 highlighted the “broken system at sea.”

The 170-foot tanker was bound for Tripoli when it rescued the migrants. According to an account from a German rescue group that was also operating in the Mediterranean, an aircraft reported the position of two rubber migrant boats to the El Hiblu 1 and asked its captain to help because the Libyan coast guard was not available to assist.

“The captain of the ship rescued the people and requested assistance,” the German rescue group, Sea-Eye, wrote in its account, which was based on radio exchanges. “He said unequivocally on the radio that people are very upset and do not want to be brought back to Libya.”

Maltese soldiers took control March 28 of a tanker that had been hijacked by migrants rescued off the Libyan coast. The ship later arrived at a dock in Malta. (Video: Reuters)

Gordon Isler, a Sea-Eye spokesman, said merchant ships now risk becoming “agents of illegal repatriation” when they rescue migrants and return them to Libya.

“The rescued persons have gone through hell and are now facing a completely overwhelmed and unprepared crew members of a cargo ship, who have to explain to them that they are being returned to exactly the place they were trying to escape,” he said.

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