An aid group has warned of a “desperate and dangerous situation” in the Mediterranean Sea after authorities in Italy vowed to close their ports to a ship reportedly hijacked by rescued refugees and migrants.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right interior minister, identified the ship as Elhiblu 1 and said the crew had rescued some 120 people in Libyan waters.
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Salvini said the tanker initially headed back to Tripoli, Libya’s capital, but six nautical miles (11.1km) from the port it suddenly changed course heading north. On Wednesday evening, it was halfway between the Libyan coast and Malta, he added.
Salvini, who has been at the centre of several international stand-offs over his refusal to let refugee rescue ships dock in Italy, said it was too early to tell if the ship was being directed towards Malta or Italy’s Lampedusa island.
Vowing not to let the ship dock in Italy, Matteo said: “These are not migrants in distress, they are pirates. They will only see Italy through a telescope.”
A Maltese military official, who was not authorised to speak to reporters and requested anonymity, told local media that Malta would not also allow the ship to enter the country’s waters.
“We received reports of a pirated ship heading towards Malta or Lampedusa (off Sicily) and we’re monitoring the situation,” a Maltese coastguard spokesman told the AFP news agency.
There was no immediate word on the condition of El Hiblu 1’s crew. Other information about the reported hijacking was unavailable or difficult to confirm while the vessel remained at sea.
In a Twitter post, Doctors Without Borders described the situation as “desperate and dangerous”, saying it highlighted “the broken system at sea and the despair of vulnerable people”.
Desperate and dangerous situation unfolding in the #Mediterranean sea now – highlighting the broken system at sea and the despair of vulnerable people. #nonrefoulement #elhiblu1 #unclos #imo #solashttps://t.co/YTmytAfOcp
— MSF Sea (@MSF_Sea) March 27, 2019
Mediterranea Saving Humans, a private group that operates a rescue ship and monitors how governments treat migrants, urged compassion for the people on board and said it hoped European countries would act “in the name of fundamental rights, remembering that we are dealing with human beings fleeing hell”.
The United Nations says refugees and migrants in chaos-wracked Libya face trafficking, kidnap, torture and rape.
However, following Italy’s increasingly tough anti-migrant stance, boats that pick up refugees and 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.
Meanwhile, earlier on Wednesday, the European Union announced it would suspend maritime patrols that have rescued thousands of refugees and asylum seekers in the Mediterranean, following deep resistance from Rome.
Instead, the new agreement on Operation Sophia, the EU mission to reduce people-smuggling in the Mediterranean, will rely on extended air patrols and close coordination with Libya.
Human Rights Watch criticised the decision as a formal abdication by the EU of “any semblance of responsibility for rescue” in the Mediterranean.
“Operation Sophia will now only provide aerial surveillance and support for the Libyan coastguard. That means more interceptions by Libyan forces and return of women, men and children to nightmarish conditions and treatment in Libya,” said Judith Sunderland, associate director for Europe at the rights group.