US NewsTanker hijacked by migrants after they were rescued in the Mediterranean is seized by Maltese special forces in dramatic rescue operation
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Maltese special forces have seized a tanker that was hijacked by migrants in the Mediterranean after the captain stopped to rescue them.
Armed forces handed control of the vessel back to the captain who sailed it towards Malta's Grand Port, in the capital Valletta, port along with the migrants and crew.
When the boat arrived, the migrants were escorted off under armed guard before being handed over to waiting police.
Several police vans and a bus were waiting in the harbour for the migrants, four of whom were taken away in handcuffs.
The captain and his crew were also seen being escorted off of the ship.
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Officers said an investigation has been launched, but it is unclear whether the migrants will now be prosecuted for the hijacking or sent to a detention centre while they apply for asylum.
Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini had earlier said the ship, an 846-ton tanker named El Hiblu 1, had been bound for Libya after picking up the migrants but had been taken over and turned towards Europe.
El Hiblu 1 is registered in the Republic of Palau, an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean.
The ship was on its way to Tripoli, the capital of Lybia, from Turkey, on Tuesday but six nautical miles from port it diverted, heading north to rescue some migrants off the coast of Libya.
Salvini, a hardliner who has repeatedly refused entry to Mediterranean migrants, claimed the ship with 108 migrants on board was now heading for Malta or the Italian island of Lampedusa.
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Both countries said El Hiblu 1 would not be allowed to enter their national 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 AFP.
Migrants in chaos-wracked Libya face trafficking, kidnap, torture and rape, according to the United Nations and aid groups.
At 4pm, there had been no communication from the tanker for 16 hours, Maritime and Crimean Shipping News reported.
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Refusing to let the migrants into Italy, Salvini tweeted: 'They're not shipwrecked, they're pirates. They should know that they will only see Italy with a telescope.'
The Italian news agency ANSA reported that Salvini said: 'It would be the first act of piracy on the high seas, with migrants who have hijacked a ship that had reached six nautical miles [seven miles] off the Libyan coast.'
The agency reports that the migrants had realised they were returning towards Tripoli and had threatened the freighter's commander and crew.
The reported line echoes Salvini's language last year when he said migrants would only see the country 'on a postcard'.
The 46-year-old has spearheaded the migration crackdown since he became interior minister and deputy PM last year.
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He has turned away rescue ships operated by foreign NGOs, such as the Aquarius, which was left stranded with 630 migrants last June after being refused entry to Italy.
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.
Several boatloads of migrants rescued in recent months have refused to disembark in Libya, prompting the authorities there to use force.
Migrant arrivals from North Africa and the Middle East have been sharply reduced since a 2015 peak when Europe faced its worst migration crisis since World War II.
Salvini has accused the rescue missions of playing into the hands of people smugglers.
He was sworn in after striking deal to form a government with the Five Star Movement, an agreement that brought Italy a populist government after three months of post-election deadlock.
On Monday Salvini vowed to 'change Europe' after his League party - which he transformed into a national force - won a regional election.
Spain's socialist PM Pedro Sanchez, who also came to power last year, has taken a more liberal approach.
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