A Maltese special operations team boarded a tanker that had been hijacked by migrants rescued at sea and returned control to the captain before escorting it to a Maltese port.
Five men suspected of being the leaders of the hiijacking were arrested and taken away in a prison van while others disembarked from the vessel that arrived in Valletta on Thursday.
The Palau-flagged tanker Elhiblu I had picked up the migrants on Tuesday evening in waters under Libyan coastguard jurisdiction and headed for Tripoli.
Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahed, reporting from Tripoli, said the vessel changed course when it was about six nautical miles (11.1km) from the Libyan coast.
“We have been told the migrants on board the vessel were fearful of being returned to Libyan detention centres where they could face violations at the hands of people smugglers,” Abdelwahed said.
Authorities in Italy and Malta on Wednesday said that the group had hijacked the Turkish oil tanker and forced the crew to put the Libya-bound vessel on a course towards Europe.
Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on Wednesday described what happened as “the first act of piracy on the high seas with migrants” and vowed that the migrants would not be allowed to disembark in Italy.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat commented that his country does “not shirk responsibility.”
“We will now follow all international rules accordingly,” he added.
‘Not in control of the vessel’
The tanker was about 30 nautical miles (55.5km) from Malta when the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) established communications with the captain.
“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 AFM said in a 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.”
It said the team was backed up by several naval vessels and a helicopter.
The German charity Sea-Eye, whose ship Alan Kurdi was in the rescue zone off Libya and which overheard radio messages between a European military aircraft and the tanker, said the ship had picked up 108 migrants including women and children.
Migrants in chaos-wracked Libya face trafficking, kidnap, torture and rape, according to the United Nations and aid groups.
Following Rome’s increasingly tough anti-migrant stance, boats that pick up migrants making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean increasingly return them to Libya.
Boatloads of rescued migrants have in recent months refused to disembark in Libya, prompting the authorities there to use force.
The European Union announced on Wednesday it will suspend ship patrols, which have rescued tens of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean and brought them to Italy, in the face of deep resistance from Rome’s populist government.
Migrant arrivals from North Africa and the Middle East have sharply reduced since a 2015 peak when Europe faced its worst migration crisis since World War II.