Ship crew locked themselves on the bridge when migrants spotted Libya on the horizon

The crew of a hijacked merchant vessel sensed that trouble was about to start when rescued migrants realised it was taking them back to Libya

The merchant vessel El Hiblu 1 berthed in Malta after it was stormed by a special unit of the Armed Forces of Malta
The merchant vessel El Hiblu 1 berthed in Malta after it was stormed by a special unit of the Armed Forces of Malta

The chief officer of a merchant ship hijacked by migrants who had just been rescued has accused three young men of being the ringleaders.

Nader El Hiblu, 42, was testifying in court on Wednesday in the case against three migrants who stand accused of hijacking the ship and forcing it to come to Malta.

The chief officer of the El Hiblu 1 told the court that the three teenagers acted aggressively when migrants realised the ship was taking them back to Libya.

However, he admitted there had been no violence on board the ship and that the captain remained in control all the time.

The court heard how the young men ordered the captain to steer the ship to Malta.

“We did as we were told to avoid being hurt… We felt outnumbered,” El Hiblu said.

The ship had rescued some 100 migrants off the Libyan coast on 26 March after being instructed to do so by Italian authorities. It was forced to head towards Malta when migrants realised the ship was going to Tripoli.

A special unit of the Armed Forces of Malta stormed the vessel as it entered Maltese waters.

In Tuesday’s sitting, the court heard how the ship’s captain had told army officers that his vessel was “under piracy”.

Today, the court heard how a rescue plane flying overhead had instructed the captain to take the group to a defined location, where a ship would be waiting.

However, the rendezvous never happened and after waiting a while changed course to head for the Libyan capital Tripoli.

On Tuesday, the ship’s chief engineer had testified that the vessel spent just 30 minutes at the designated meeting point before heading for Libya.

However, testifying on Wednesday, El Hiblu said the wait lasted some six hours.

At night, the ship started its voyage towards Tripoli but trouble started in the morning when the Libyan coastline was visible in the distance.

“We sensed something would happen and locked ourselves on the bridge… A group of 20 or 25 got hold of anything they could lay their hands on and began to bang on the glass,” he said.

One of the accused banged on the glass using an iron key while another covered all the cameras. The third served as an interpreter to English.

The chief officer denied reporting injuries to the Maltese authorities.

Magistrate Aaron Bugeja stepped in and read from transcripts between the El Hiblu 1 and Maltese authorities, in which the ship said some crew members had been injured.

“That was the chief engineer speaking,” the witness said.

Lawyers Cedric Mifsud, Neil Falzon, Gianluca Cappitta and Malcolm Mifsud appeared for the accused.

Inspector Omar Zammit prosecuted.

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