British special forces stormed a Greek-operated oil tanker in the English channel to wrestle control of the vessel from seven stowaways who had threatened the crew in what the defence ministry described as a suspected hijacking.
Troops from the Special Boat Service, a navy special forces unit, boarded on Sunday the Nave Andromeda near the Isle of Wight off southern England as the vessel showed signs of distress.
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Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Home Secretary Priti Patel authorised the armed forces to board the ship “to safeguard life and secure a ship that was subject to suspected hijacking”, the defence ministry said.
“Armed forces have gained control of the ship and seven individuals have been detained,” the ministry said. “Initial reports confirm the crew are safe and well.”
In response to a police request, the Defence Secretary and Home Secretary authorised Armed Forces personnel to board a ship in the English Channel to safeguard life and secure a ship that was subject to suspected hijacking. (1/2)
— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) October 25, 2020
The defence ministry declined to confirm or deny the involvement of the SBS – in line with British government policy of not commenting on special forces operations.
But a source with knowledge of the matter said the SBS were involved, according to Reuters news agency. SBS operations are usually classified. Former Royal Navy warfare officer Chris Parry said the SBS had been involved.
The navy’s Special Boat Service, considered a sister unit to the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS), is one of Britain’s most secretive special forces units.
An elite maritime counterterrorism unit, the SBS traces its history back to World War II and has been involved in many of the conflicts of the past 70 years including Afghanistan and Iraq.
The SBS’s closest equivalent in the United States is the SEAL Team Six, or Task Force Blue.
It was not immediately clear where the stowaways were from or what their intentions were.
Police said the crew had been subjected to threats from the stowaways and that they were working with coastguard and border forces to resolve the situation.
“They had made verbal threats towards the crew. No one has been reported injured,” a police spokesman said.
A source on the Isle of Wight off the south coast told Britain’s Daily Mail: “The captain clearly stated he feared for (the crew’s) lives and needed urgent assistance, they needed rescuing … It was desperation, you could hear the fear in his voice.”
Law firm Tatham & Co, which represents the ship’s owners, told the BBC that the incident was “100 percent not a hijacking”.
Rather, the stowaways resisted being locked in a cabin after being discovered, the lawyers added.
A source close to the shipping company also told the BBC that crew had been aware of stowaways on board for some time, but that they had turned violent as the vessel approached Britain.
Thousands of economic migrants and asylum seekers have sought to cross the English Channel from France to reach British shores this year, often paying traffickers to help them traverse one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in overloaded rubber dinghies.
Refinitiv vessel tracking data showed the Liberia-flagged Nave Andromeda had been expected to arrive in the English port of Southampton at 10.30 GMT on Sunday. The vessel had left from Lagos, Nigeria, the data showed.
The Nave Andromeda’s registered owner is Folegandros Shipping Corp, and the vessel is managed by Greek shipping company Navios Tankers Management Inc, according to Refinitiv.
In December 2018, British forces stormed an Italian cargo ship and regained control after stowaways threatened the crew as it sailed close to the southeast coast.