UK special forces have ended a 10-hour standoff in the English Channel after a group of violent Nigerian "hijackers" threatened to kill the crew of an oil tanker bound for the UK.
Troops from the Special Boat Service stormed the Nave Andromeda under cover of darkness and in a nine-minute raid detained seven suspected migrants after they forced the giant vessel to drop anchor 8km off the Isle of Wight.
Last night UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Home Secretary Priti Patel praised the police and armed forces for bringing the situation under control.
Wallace said: "I commend the hard work of the armed forces and police to protect lives and secure the ship.
Patel said: "Tonight we are thankful for the quick and decisive action of our police and armed forces who were able to bring this situation under control, guaranteeing the safety of all those on board."
The Ministry of Defence confirmed that the ship had been "subject to a suspected hijacking".
The Nigerian stowaways are understood to have turned violent after the crew discovered them hiding in the bowels of the 228m-long vessel, which had been due to dock in Southampton yesterday morning.
When the crew attempted to lock the men inside a cabin, they smashed glass and reportedly made threats to kill. The captain then issued a desperate Mayday call to the mainland, pleading for help as he feared losing control of the ship, which can carry up to 42,000 tons of crude oil.
He reportedly told an operator that he feared for his life, adding: "I'm trying to keep them calm but please send help." Some members of the 22-strong crew retreated to the ship's engine room "citadel", a stronghold designed to keep out pirates, until the SBS finally arrived.
Flashing torches could be seen from the mainland as around 16 Special Forces troops boarded the vessel at around 1930, with two Royal Navy wildcat helicopters and two Navy Merlin Mark 4 helicopters joining the operation.
Seven men were detained and brought back to the mainland for questioning after they were met by "overwhelming force". The crew were all found safe inside the ships' stronghold.
The incident will add to the pressure on Patel who has been attempting to counter a surge of migrants crossing the channel which have hit 7,500 already this year, almost four times the 1,900 in the whole of 2019. Patel has proposed that asylum for migrants who arrive in the UK illegally should be refused unless there is good reason to consider their cases.
It marks the second time in less than two years that African stowaways have risen up against the crew of a vessel bound for the UK. Four migrants from Nigeria and Libya were jailed in January after running amok on a container ship during a 14-hour stand-off in the Thames Estuary in December 2018, waving metal poles and lobbing faeces. The group's immigration status is due to be "reviewed" by the Border Force upon completion of their sentences.
Police hostage negotiators were called in to resolve the situation yesterday while helicopters hovered over the ship as it circled erratically in the sea south of Bembridge. HM Coastguard enforced a three mile exclusion zone around the vessel.
Isle of Wight MP Bob Seely said he feared the stowaways had "seized control" of the vessel although lawyers for the Greek owners Navios Maritime Holdings later claimed it was "100 per cent not a hijacking".
Military sources later said the captain had always been in control.
The Nave Andromeda departed Nigeria on October 6 bound for Southampton. Sources in the Liberian shipping registry said authorities believe the stowaways boarded in the port of Lagos though the vessel's "rudder trunk", an opening near the ship's hull.
When they were found by the crew, the stowaways had no identity documents. It is thought they may have hidden on board the vessel for nearly 20 days before being discovered.
A spokesman for Hampshire Police said: "At 10.04am today (25 October) concerns were raised to police for the welfare of crew on board the Nave Andromeda – a vessel situated approximately six miles off the coast of Bembridge, Isle of Wight.
"It was reported that a number of stowaways were on board, and they had made verbal threats towards the crew. No one has been reported injured."