Italian special forces have stormed a cargo ship sailing from Turkey to France after about 15 people armed with knives attempted to hijack the vessel.
The asylum seekers, 13 men and two women, mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, had allegedly sneaked undetected on to the roll-on, roll-off cargo ship, named Galatea Seaways, in the hope of reaching Europe.
The vessel, designed to carry vehicles and sailing under a Turkish flag with 22 crew members, set off from Topçular in Turkey on 7 June and was headed for Sète in southern France, Italy’s defence ministry told the press.
However, once onboard, the stowaways were discovered by the crew and allegedly tried to take some of the sailors hostage inside the bridge using knives, Ansa news agency said.
The captain of the ship managed to radio for help, sending an urgent request to Ankara, which subsequently reported the incident to the Italian authorities, as the ship was navigating 90 miles off the Italian coast.
“An operation is under way on a vessel boarded by pirates … The stowaways were using what seem to be weapons like daggers” to threaten the crew, Italy’s defence minister, Guido Crosetto, told reporters. “The San Marco battalion had to intervene.”
Crosetto added: “What is known about the hijackers is that they are illegal immigrants. Let’s hope it ends as quickly as possible without consequences for anyone.”
After a nearly seven-hour military operation, special forces regained control of the ship, reportedly arresting the alleged hijackers, some of whom had barricaded themselves in the depths of the hold.
Two navy helicopters as well as coastguard and financial police boats were involved in the operation, the Italian ministry said.
“The ship has now been recaptured and the entire 22-man crew of the Turkish ship is safe,” the ministry said.
The cargo ship was eventually anchored just outside the port of Naples, according to the MarineTraffic ship tracking website, and there was a heavy police presence at the port, local media reported.
Every day, thousands of people are pushed to take ever more hazardous routes to avoid fierce violence from security forces in Balkan states and pullbacks from the Libyan coastguard in the central Mediterranean.
In 2019, a merchant ship was hijacked by people it had rescued off north Africa, when it became clear that it planned to take them back to Libya, where asylum seekers face trafficking, kidnap, torture and rape.
Last February, Bulgarian authorities found 18 people dead in an abandoned truck near the village of Lokorsko, 12 miles (20km) north-east of Sofia.
In 2020, seven north African men boarded a container in the Serbian town of Šid, hoping they would emerge a few days later in Milan. Instead, the container was transferred on to a ship at a Croatian port, before passing through Egypt, Spain and across the Atlantic Ocean to Argentina, where it was taken upriver to Asunción, the landlocked capital of Paraguay.
The men – squeezed in the tiny space between the cargo and the container’s roof – did not survive. Their bodies were discovered on 23 October 2020, four months after they entered the metal box.
AFP and Ansa contributed to this report