Maltese Forces Bring Hijacked Tanker into Port of Valletta

The Turkish bunker tanker Elhiblu 1 (file image courtesy Tsarik Ruslan)

By The Maritime Executive 03-28-2019 12:21:33

In an operation carried out Wednesday night, Malta's armed forces took back control of the hijacked bunker tanker Elhiblu 1 and brought her safely into the port of Valletta.

Earlier this week, a group of more than 100 migrants hijacked the Elhiblu 1 after it rescued them in the Central Mediterranean. The tanker diverted to bring them back to shore in Misrata, Libya, where they could reasonably expect human rights abuses in detention. Instead, the migrants took over control of the ship to direct it to a non-Libyan port. Italy and Malta both said that their ports were closed to the vessel, and Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini described the hijackers as "pirates" who would only see Italy "through a telescope."

According to Malta's armed forces, “the captain [of the Elhiblu] repeatedly stated . . . that he and his crew were being forced and threatened by a number of migrants to proceed to Malta." A Maltese special operations team boarded the Elhiblu on Wednesday night with assistance from fast interceptor boats and a helicopter and quickly retook control of the ship.

"We do not shirk responsibility despite our size," said Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of the small island nation. "We will now follow all international rules accordingly."

Upon the Elhiblu's arrival in Valletta, the police arrested five suspects out of the 108 migrants on board and allowed the others to disembark. The group included 19 women and 12 children. 

Salvini described the altercation aboard the Elhiblu as a vindication of his hardline anti-immigration policies, which have effectively banned migrant arrivals at Italian seaports.. "The military intervention of Malta . . . is proof that immigration is handled by criminals and must be blocked by any legal means necessary," he wrote in a twitter post. 

ICS: Migration dispute affects shipping

In a statement, the International Chamber of Shipping disagreed with Salvini and said that the Elhiblu incident has confirmed shipowners' concerns about Italian immigration policy.

"Since the Italian Government changed its previous policy of providing prompt and predicable disembarkation of migrants rescued at sea, the current incident is one which the industry has feared," said ICS Secretary General Guy Platten.

Platten explained that this change creates a difficult situation for the vessel operator. “If a ship is directed to disembark rescued people in Libya, it creates a potential for conflict between the crew and desperate and frustrated people that might object to being returned. Given the numbers picked up in such large scale rescue operations, the crew of the rescuing ship can easily be outnumbered and overwhelmed," he said. "Masters of merchant ships should expect that coastal states’ search and rescue authorities will co-ordinate and provide for disembarkation in a place of safety, both for those rescued and for the seafarers involved in the rescue.”

The UN has determined that Libya is not a place of safety for disembarkation, and has documented widespread patterns of abuse in Libyan migrant detention facilities.