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ATHENS, Greece – A rescue in the Mediterranean Sea that took an ominous turn has raised concerns that some merchant ship captains might become reluctant to save migrants in danger of drowning during the perilous crossing from north Africa to Europe, fearing they could lose control of their ship.
A cargo ship heading from Turkey to Libya was asked to divert its course to rescue nearly 100 migrants in distress, which it did, before continuing on its course. But when the migrants realized Wednesday they were headed back to lawless Libya, which they had just left, some revolted, commandeering the ship and forcing it to head to Europe.
The temporary hijacking this week of the El Hiblu 1 was described by Italy's hard-line interior minister as an act of "piracy. " Aid groups called it an act of "self-defense" against Europe's inhumane immigration policies, which aim to ship back desperate migrants to Libya, where they often face beatings, rape and torture in detention camps.
Five migrants were arrested after Maltese special forces boarded the ship Thursday, then escorted it to port.
The ship's captain said Maltese authorities had detained and strip-searched him after the ship docked in the capital, Valletta.
"I swear in the name of God, if I find a million people dying in front of me in the sea, I will never rescue them after what I saw here in Malta," Nader el Hiblu told The Associated Press by phone from the ship Friday. "This filthy country treated me in a very disrespectable way after rescuing 98 people. They dealt with me as a criminal and accused me of illegal migration."
But the captain's perhaps understandable ire notwithstanding, all boat and ship crews are legally required to rescue anyone in distress at sea. The United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea stipulates captains must "render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost" so long as they can do so without "serious danger to the ship, the crew or the passengers."
The risk of hijackings in the Mediterranean has been of concern to the shipping world in recent years, particularly since some European countries began refusing to allow ships with rescued passengers into their ports, industry specialists say.
"We knew it was coming, we have sounded warnings about this frequently," John Stawpert, manager for environment and trade at the London-based International Chamber of Shipping, told the AP. "This episode I think has brought it into sharp focus. What we need is action at a high level, at state level and also international level, to ensure that ships that find themselves, through no fault of their own, in this sort of situation, get immediate assistance."
Cargo ships and their crews are not equipped to deal with large numbers of desperate people suddenly arriving on board. The ICS has called for the coast guards of nearby countries to intervene as quickly as possible in such situations to transfer rescued migrants to safe locations.
Despite the risks, Stawpert said it was unlikely commercial ships would start to regularly refuse help to those in distress.
The number of people making the perilous journey from north Africa across the Mediterranean to Europe has fallen steeply in recent years, he noted, and many are being caught by the Libyan coast guard before they get far from the Libyan coast.
"Most importantly, seafarers recognize their legal and moral obligation to conduct search and rescue. It's a very deeply ingrained moral obligation and culture within shipping," he said. "I'm confident that people will continue to pick up people in distress."
Michael contributed from Cairo.