In the early hours of Friday, the Special Boat Service (SBS) conducted a hostage-rescue operation on the river Thames. Four Nigerian stowaways had partially seized an Italian cargo ship, the Grande Tema.
The cargo ship was coming from Nigeria and was heading to Tilbury. The four Nigerian stowaways had smuggled themselves abroad the vessel. Once the British shores were visible, the four men came out of their hiding place and threatened the crew demanding that they bring the ship close to the shore. Their intent was to jump overboard and swim to the shore. In response, the crew locked themselves on the ship’s bridge — the command-and-control room of a ship — and contacted the authorities about the evolving situation. Meanwhile, the four Nigerian stowaways armed themselves with everything they could find aboard the vessel, iron chains, tubes, and poles, and were starting to become violent.
The situation was peculiar: the crew was in command of the ship, but also essentially held hostage in the bridge by the four roaming and angry stowaways. The British Government decided to call in the United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF), which is comprised of the famed Special Air Service (SAS), the Special Boat Service (SBS), the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), and the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG). Since this was a maritime scenario, the operation fell under the jurisdiction of the Special Boat Service (SBS). The men called to respond would have belonged to M Squadron, which is responsible for Maritime Counter-Terrorism (MCT) operations.
About two dozen SBS commandos fast-roped from Royal Navy Merlin helicopters onto the deck of the cargo ship. Moving quickly, the commandos cleared the bridge and arrested the four hijackers. No crew members were injured in the process. The whole operation took just 25 minutes from the first boots on the ground to the all-clear signal. Although it might seem a lot for a hostage-rescue operation, where speed is the key once the hostage-takers are aware that a rescue operation is underway, one has to keep in mind the size of the cargo ship. At about 770 feet and weighing over 73,000 tonnes, the Grande Tema offered quite a challenge.
The four Nigerians have been charged and arrested under the Immigration Act. Interesting, the Essex Police, which had the law enforcement jurisdiction since the ship was traversing its area of operations, stated that they were not considering the episode as a hostage, piracy, or terror-related incident.
This isn’t the first SBS operation with a Nigerian flavour. In 2012, Christopher McManus, a British citizen and construction contractor, and Franco Lamolinara, an Italian national, had been seized by jihadists belonging to an al-Qaeda affiliated group. The SBS were called in to attempt a rescue. Alongside Nigerian forces, the commandos stormed the target but were too late: the two hostages had been executed before they could get to them.
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