In a daring nighttime raid, British SBS commandos stormed a tanker off the Isle of Wight. They took into custody seven stowaways who were also suspected of being hijackers.
The captain of the Nave Andromeda sent out a distress signal and asked for assistance the stowaways, all believed to be from Nigeria, threatened the crew with violence as the tanker approached the English shore.
The ship had left Lagos, Nigeria, and was due to dock in Southhampton, England on Sunday morning.
Navios Maritime Holdings, which owns the Greek flagged Nave Andromeda, released a statement saying that the ship’s captain radioed British authorities that stowaways had been found on board, as “he was concerned for the safety of the crew due to the increasingly hostile behavior of the stowaways.”
A spokesman for the company said that the crew had not lost control of the vessel, even as they took refuge in a secure area of the ship, known as the “citadel,” and that describing the incident as a hijacking was inaccurate.
However, the British Ministry of Defense characterized the situation as a “suspected hijacking” and alerted the Special Boat Service (SBS).
The SBS is an elite maritime counterterrorism unit, that traces its history back to World War II and has been involved in many of the conflicts of the past 70 years including Afghanistan and Iraq. The SBS’s U.S. equivalent is the Navy’s SEAL teams. SBS is considered a sister unit to the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) in Britain’s Special Forces units.
The SBS is headquartered in Poole, on the southern coast of England not far from where the ship called for assistance.
Although the crew of the Nave Andromeda had been aware of the stowaways for quite some time during the three-week voyage from Lagos to Southhampton, there was no actual trouble until Sunday morning.
“They had made verbal threats towards the crew. No one has been reported injured,” a police spokesman said.
The commercial shipping industry has protocols that it follows in the case of stowaways. When stowaways are discovered, the captain must report them to the authorities, as the captain of the Nave Andromeda did in this case. Simultaneously, the captain and crew must also ensure that the stowaways are treated humanely and are well cared for while on the vessel.
Yet if the crew feels threatened, as in this case, the captain initiates a procedure that involves locking the crew in a secure location called a “citadel.” From there they can continue to maintain some control over the ship and still communicate with the authorities onshore.
British Secretary of Defense, Ben Wallace, posted a statement on Twitter early Monday, offering congratulations to the members of the military and police who responded to the situation.
“In dark skies, and worsening weather, we should all be grateful for our brave personnel,” he said. “People are safe tonight thanks to their efforts.”
The Ministry of Defense released a brief statement saying that the armed forces were given permission to “board a ship in the English Channel to safeguard life and secure a ship that was subject to suspected hijacking.” However, per its policy on special operations, it refused to add any further details.
“Armed forces have gained control of the ship and seven individuals have been detained,” the Defense Ministry said. “Initial reports confirm the crew are safe and well.”
The BBC and others reported that the SBS operators rappelled down ropes from four Royal Navy helicopters over the vessel and that the stowaways were taken into custody.