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Vessel changed course after rescued migrants realised they were being taken back to Libya

The Elhiblu 1 is guided into harbour at Senglea, Malta, by the Maltese military after being hijacked by migrants
 The Elhiblu 1 is guided into harbour at Senglea, Malta, by the Maltese military after being hijacked by migrants. Photograph: Anne Aquilina/EPA

A merchant ship hijacked by migrants off the coast of Libya has been escorted to Malta by the country’s armed forces.

Armed military personnel stood guard on the ship’s deck and a dozen or so migrants were visible as the Elhibru 1 docked at Boiler Wharf in the city of Senglea. Several police vans were lined up on shore to take custody of the migrants for investigation.

The ship rescued about 108 migrants in the Mediterranean on Wednesday and suddenly changed course towards Europe after the migrants realised they were being taken back to Libya. Migrants in Libya face trafficking, kidnap, torture and rape, according to the United Nations and aid groups.

The Maltese armed forces (AFM) said that contact was made with Elhibru 1 when it was about 30 nautical miles away from Malta.

“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,” AFM said in statement.

“AFM patrol vessel P21 stopped the tanker from entering the Maltese territorial waters. An AFM special operations unit team was dispatched to board and secure the vessel in order to hand over control of the ship to the captain. The team was backed up by AFM patrol vessel P51, two fast interceptor craft, and one the AFM’s AW 139 helicopters. P21 kept on escorting and monitoring the tanker throughout the operation.”

The tanker, crew and all migrants were being escorted to Boiler Wharf, where they would be handed over to the police for further investigations, the statement added.

On Wednesday, Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and interior minister, vowed to block the ship from arriving in Italy after receiving news of the hijacking.

“These are not migrants in distress, they are pirates. They will only see Italy through a telescope,” he said.

Salvini, who is also the leader of the far-right League party, has been at the centre of several international standoffs over his refusal to let humanitarian ships dock in Italy.

Last week, Italy’s senate rejected a request by prosecutors to investigate him for kidnapping over a case in August when he blocked an Italian coastguard ship with 150 people onboard for almost a week off Sicily before finally letting it dock.

This week, Italian authorities released the Mare Jonio charity rescue ship, which was seized in March after it defied the government’s order not to bring migrants to Italy.

On Wednesday, the European Union said it would stop its sea patrols in the Mediterranean, which have rescued thousands of refugees and migrants, after the Italian government threatened to veto the EU’s entire operation in the waters.

Operation Sophia, which has two vessels and five planes and helicopters, was set up in 2015 to prevent loss of life at sea in a year when 3,771 people died or went missing attempting to reach Europe in rickety boats.

The sea patrol element of the operation will end on 30 September, though air patrols will be stepped up. The mission will also continue training the Libyan coastguard – part of a controversial strategy that critics say leads to people being trapped in Libyan detention centres, where they suffer horrific abuse.

More than 80 people rescued off the Libyan coast in November and returned to the port of Misrata on a cargo ship refused to leave for more than a week and were eventually forced to disembark at gunpoint.

The number of migrant arrivals from North Africa and the Middle East has fallen sharply since a 2015 peak.

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