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Maltese Forces Seize Ship That Was Hijacked By Rescued Migrants

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A group of migrants showed just how determined they were to reach Europe. They were in a boat off the coast of Libya. The boat was sinking. A ship rescued the 100 migrants, and then, when they realized the ship was bound back toward Libya, they seized control of it. They forced the ship to turn toward Europe. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports on what happened next.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Maltese soldiers boarded the ship 30 nautical miles from Malta and restored control to the captain. The tanker was then escorted to the port of Senglea, and the migrants were turned over to police for investigation. The Turkish-owned tanker, El Hiblu 1, had rescued the migrants as it was heading toward Tripoli. But the migrants - 77 men and 31 women - refused to go back to Libya and took control of the ship. They forced the crew to set course for Malta or Italy.

Maltese and Italian officials closely followed the unfolding drama. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said the only way the migrants would see Italy is through binoculars.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTEO SALVINI: (Through interpreter) This is clearly an act of organized crime. There was no shipwreck, no rescue. Italian waters remain off-limits to pirates and criminals.

POGGIOLI: In the 10 months since the leader of the hard-right League Party has been a partner in Italy's populist coalition government, Salvini's strict anti-immigration policy has banned entry to Italian ports of all ships carrying migrants rescued at sea. He dismisses accusations he's violating the fundamental rule of international law on the duty to rescue persons in distress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SALVINI: (Through interpreter) I won't change my mind. Italian ports are sealed off to organized illegal immigration and human trafficking.

POGGIOLI: Migration numbers have dropped sharply in the last few years as many European Union countries, responding to domestic opposition to welcoming migrants, have withdrawn from search-and-rescue operations at sea. Human rights organizations claim that EU member states alert the Libyan Coast Guard when migrants are spotted at sea so they can be intercepted and returned to Libya. Amnesty International and other human rights groups report that in that lawless country, migrants are arbitrarily detained and exposed to torture, rape and exploitation.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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