More than 100 migrants are in custody after they allegedly commandeered a Turkish cargo ship that rescued them off the coast of Libya.
The migrants' boat was sinking, officials say, when they were saved by a Turkish ship called the El Hiblu 1. But the rescue mission turned into a hijacking after the migrants realized they were being taken back to Libya.
About 6 miles from Tripoli, the migrants reportedly forced the 12-man crew to reverse course, heading back toward Europe. Italy's interior minister, the anti-immigration Matteo Salvini, vowed the migrants would not be allowed into Italy. "They are pirates," Salvini said in Italian in a Facebook post on Wednesday. "The only way they will see Italy is through a telescope."
The ship had spent hours in the Mediterranean Sea and had been refused entry by the governments of Italy and Malta when Maltese authorities made contact with the ship when it was about 30 miles away and heading toward that island, the Telegraph reported. The captain told officials he was not in control of the vessel and was being forced to head to Malta. Maltese armed forces boarded the ship early Thursday morning.
The episode highlighted the continuing tension between migrants seeking a better life and European countries that refuse to accept them. Migrants have been attempting to flee oppressive governments in Africa and the Middle East for some time, but such hijackings are essentially unheard of. Salvini described the incident as "the first act of piracy on the high seas with migrants," the Italian news agency ANSA reported.
The humanitarian group Mediterranea Saving Humans said it hoped the European countries would remember that "these are human beings fleeing from hell." Adding that: "We ask that the 108 people on board be considered refugees to be welcomed and protected."
Migrants attempting the sea journey to Europe regularly set off from Libya. Sometimes their precarious rafts sink in the Mediterranean, killing everyone on board. In November, after rescued migrants refused to disembark from a ship returning to Libya, that country's coast guard forcibly removed them and placed them in detention centers. Migrants captured in Libya often say they are subject to torture or sold into slavery.
This isn't the first time Italy and Malta have rejected African migrants. Last year the mayor of Barcelona offered her city as refuge after the two countries refused entry to 70 migrants rescued by a Spanish humanitarian group.
The European Union said this week that, because of opposition by Italy, it would end navy patrols in the Mediterranean that rescue migrants attempting the voyage across the sea. Its humanitarian mission, Operation Sophia, often brought the migrants to Italy's ports.