Oil tanker hijacked by rescued migrants arrives in Malta

Italian Coast Guard boats Credit: Elio Desiderio/ANSA via AP

An oil tanker that was hijacked by more than 100 migrants it had rescued at sea has arrived in a Maltese port, after armed forces restored control to the captain.

Malta's armed forces had taken control of the Turkish El Hiblu 1 tanker, which had been seized by migrants off the coast of Libya on Wednesday after it rescued them in the Mediterranean Sea.

The tanker has arrived at a port in the capital Valletta on Thursday morning and military said the migrants would be turned over to police for investigation.

Italy's interior minister, Matteo Salvini, had earlier called the migrants "pirates" and said they would not be allowed to dock in Italy.

He said the ship had rescued about 120 people and described what happened as "the first act of piracy on the high seas with migrants".

Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini. Credit: AP

The ship had been heading towards Italy’s southernmost island of Lampedusa and the island of Malta when Maltese forces intercepted it.

Troops established communications with the captain while the ship was still 30 nautical miles off shore.

The captain told them 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".

A patrol vessel stopped the tanker from entering Maltese waters, they said.

The special forces team that restored control to the captain was backed by a patrol vessel, two fast interceptor craft and a helicopter.

Humanitarian organisations say migrants are mistreated and even tortured in Libya, and have protested over protocols to return migrants rescued offshore to the lawless northern African nation.

Italy and Malta have refused to open their ports to humanitarian ships that rescue migrants at sea, which has created numerous standoffs as European governments haggle over which will take them in.

Mediterranea, a private group that operates a rescue ship and monitors how governments treat migrants, urged compassion for the group on the hijacked vessel and said it hoped European countries would act "in the name of fundamental rights, remembering that we are dealing with human beings fleeing hell".

Mass migration to Europe has dropped sharply since 2015, when the continent received a million refugees and migrants from countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

The surge created a humanitarian crisis in which desperate travellers frequently drowned and leading arrival spots such as Italy and Greece struggled to house large numbers of asylum-seekers.