Three teenage migrants from Guinea and Ivory Coast were charged in a Maltese court on Saturday with terrorist activity after allegedly hijacking a merchant ship that saved them off the coast of Libya and forcing it to sail to the Mediterranean island.
Fears of such incidents have grown since the European Union introduced a policy aimed at shipping rescued migrants back to Libya, where they face mistreatment in detention camps.
The defendants, aged 15, 16 and 19, were arrested on Thursday on board the El Hiblu 1, a Palau-flagged tanker that had diverted from its course from Turkey to Libya after being asked to rescue nearly 100 migrants. The three are accused of having commandeered the vessel on Wednesday when they realized that it was headed to Libya.
Under Maltese law, hijacking a ship is considered an act of terrorism carrying a punishment of between seven years and life in prison.
Growing risk of hijacking
The Times of Malta reported on Saturday that police had expressed doubts about the ship's hijacking as described by the captain. The newspaper said they believe he may have said he was not in control of his ship to gain permission to land in Malta, which has in the past, like some other European countries, refused ships carrying rescued migrants.
The case highlights the difficulties faced by merchant ships that fulfil the legal requirement to rescue anyone in distress at sea, including the growing risk of hijackings by desperate migrants.
Although UN data show sea arrivals falling from more than a million in 2015 to some 140,000 last year, migration remains a major political theme in the EU, particularly ahead of the European Parliament election in May.
The other rescued migrants, all from western Africa, are now at a reception center on Malta where their applications for asylum are being processed.
tj/rc (AP, Reuters, dpa)